The task ahead for Freddy Adu
After the U.S. Olympic team's surprise early elimination in Olympic, Freddy Adu has an opportunity to re-dedicate himself to the Union - and to finally commit to the hard work required to fully realize his potential.
The task ahead for Freddy Adu
Words cannot describe how I feel right now. Thank u for all your support. I'll do whatever it takes to never feel this way again.
- Freddy Adu on Twitter after the United States Under-23 team's 3-3 draw against El Salvador that knocked the U.S. out of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament at the group stage
On Monday night, soccer fans in Philadelphia and across America finally got to see Freddy Adu at his best.
The United States under-23 men's national team was down 2-1 in the second half to El Salvador in Nashville, and facing elimination from the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in the group stage.
With half an hour to play, Adu put the burden of leadership on his shoulders and raised his game to meet the occasion.
Cutting in with authority from the right wing to the center of midfield, Adu controlled the flow of the U.S. attack and created a series of quality chances.
The best two came within four minutes of each other: pinpoint setup passes to Terrence Boyd and Joe Corona, for goals that tied the score in the 65th minute and gave the U.S. the lead in the 68th.
It was the kind of performance that people who've been watching Adu for years - myself included - have been waiting for so long to see.
And it was the kind of performance that Union fans who've been watching Adu since his arrival in Philadelphia last year have been dreaming of.
But Adu hasn't played like that for the Union. Even for the U.S. national team, whether at the senior or youth level, he's only done it in fits and starts.
You don't have to be a Union fan - or a fan of any MLS team, frankly - to wonder what Adu would be like if he played at that high level for 90 minutes every game.
There was a point during the second half when Adu curled a shot from the top of the 18-yard box that was punched aside with a diving save from El Salvadoran goalkeeper Yimi Cuellar.
The cameras zoomed in on Adu, and he looked angry. It was a look I haven't seen on his face very often since the 22-year-old first arrived on the American soccer scene in 2004.
I thought to myself: I want to see Adu play angry more often.
I don't mean the kind of anger that seems to set in with Adu when he thinks he's being played out of position. I mean the kind of anger that he channeled into the reaction to that save - the kind of anger that compelled him to push so hard for the rest of the night.
What we saw from Adu in the last 30 minutes of Monday's game was a really serious effort on the field. The question is whether now is the time for Adu to finally break through and be at that level every time he plays.
Sure, Adu has been lined up out of position by U.S. coach Caleb Porter and by Union coach Peter Nowak. But there's a difference between what goes on in a coach's head and what goes on in a player's head.
Now I'll admit that I've never been much of a soccer player. I didn't play organized youth soccer, and I'm not a student of tactics the way many other writers are.
Still, I don't think there has to be such a huge gap in Adu's production between when he plays on the flank and when he plays in the center. I can't help thinking the real issue is in Adu's head - and it's one that I genuinely think he can overcome.
Just because Adu is played on the right wing instead of in centrral midfield shouldn't be a barrier to working hard and finding ways to express his skills. The level of talent in MLS, for as much as the league has improved, still is such that Adu can have plenty of space to create from anywhere if he wants to.
So here's what I hope to see from Adu when he gets back to Chester from Nashville. I hope Adu really does decide to do whatever it takes. I hope he decides that he's going to play at his highest level for all 90 minutes of every game in which he takes the field.
I'm pretty sure that's what many of you want, and I'm even more certain that it's what Peter Nowak wants.
I think Adu has got the ability to do it in him. It takes some confidence - of which he has plenty - but it also takes a sense of determination and a work ethic that we haven't always seen.
Work ethic is harder to teach than skill. At a certain point, an individual has to decide for him or herself to rise to the next level, and that applies to any profession in life.
So with that in mind, think back to what Peter Nowak told me in Portland before the season started:
I would say that they have to raise their own expectations. It's not what we do on the sidelines, what we do in training ... If you raise your own expectations, then we're all going to benefit from that.
Now is the time for Adu to raise his own expectations. He can complain about being played out of position, or whatever else he doesn't like about a given situation; or he can put in the hard work that will finally turn him into a true star.
If Adu does take that next step, I'm pretty sure that Nowak will give him the proverbial keys to the car, and let him drive the offense from the central midfield position he so covets.
The benefits won't just come to the Union - they'll come to the U.S. national team too. For all of his weaknesses, Adu has a creative instinct and a sense of invention that few other American soccer players have. When properly harnessed, that can only help Jurgen Klinsmann as he prepares for World Cup qualifying.
But Adu has to earn the right to show off those talents, no matter which coach he's playing for.
If Adu needs a little bit more inspiration, I can tell a pretty good story about a player I've watched a lot over the last couple of years. Like Adu, this player was played out of position on a regular basis by his coach, and he complained about it every now and again.
Nonetheless, week in and week out this player worked his backside off for his team. And though the rewards were sometimes sporadic, there came a point at which it all finally paid off. The player was moved to his preferred position, and the goals that ensued carried his team to its best ever season.
You all know who that player was: Sébastien Le Toux last season. And you all know where he'll be at 4 p.m. Saturday.
As a result of the U.S.' early elimination in Olympic qualifying, Le Toux's first game against the Union will also be Adu's first game back at PPL Park. The symbol of what Adu can become will literally be standing right across the field.
It's encouraging to see Adu state in public that he'll do "whatever it takes" to avoid feeling the way he did after Monday's game. No matter what Nowak, or the fans, or the media, or anyone else says to Adu, the only person who can truly take the next step is Adu itself.
Now is the time to make that happen.