Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Freddy and Davey: American Soccer "Saviors" Making Good

Photo Credit: Drew Hallowell
If there were two people that made the Major League Soccer needle move for non-soccer fans and the casual ones, it was David Beckham and the child-prodigy, Freddy Adu. Problem is... over the years both have been incredibly disappointing, and dare we say, busts.


Until now.


In 2011 up is down and left is right, as Beckham and Adu, two formerly-appointed American soccer "saviors" are making good now that the limelight has shifted away from them considerably. With the league growing in attendance, stature, and quality (with the addition of some other productive designated players and young stars) the pressure is off and the MLS veteran Beckham and the prodigal-son-returned-Adu are thriving or set to thrive.


Most importantly, both are poised to, or already are, making an impact in a domestic league that's grown to a point where we don't need to rely solely on gimmicks (although the All-Star game is one knock) like 14-year olds or marketable metrosexuals.


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Before Golden Balls was the "next big thing," Adu was the "thing" splashing onto the scene in 2004 at the tender age of 14, appearing in Sierra Mist (does anyone drink that?) commercials with Pele, and filling American soccer fans' heads with the sugar plums of massive marketing and crossover potential.


Much like his romance with one-hitter-wonder, pop "star" JoJo it wasn't to be. The spotlight was thrust upon him too soon and by 2007 he was traded to Real Salt Lake  and then jumped ship to chase Europeans dreams with Benefica.


Beckham would arrive the same year and take the mantle for mainstream sports writers and commentators as the savior of soccer in America. It's interesting to compare both players' career trajectories because by 2007 they were about to participate in "Trading Spaces," a show that was definitely a sign of the times.


Hey... I got this now.
Beckham's arrival in the United States came with as much bang as Adu's departure to Portugal went with a whimper. The former Real Madrid and Manchester United midfielder came to the Los Angeles Galaxy with team and individual honors up the wa-zoo and was preparing to finish out his career stateside; something he talked about for some time.


Adu, meanwhile, was sneaking out the backdoor as his domestic career fizzled at D.C. United and Real. Adu sparred with D.C.'s coach Peter Nowak and didn't seem to be a part of the upcoming Jason Kries revolution. Despite a positive showing at the U-20 World Cup he made only 17 appearances for the senior team (contributing a paltry two goals). Adu's name was still being spoken with the words "potential," time and time again. Perhaps Benefica would bring out the player American soccer fans so desperately wanted him to be?


By 2010 Beckham and Adu were tired names on the tongues of American soccer fans.


"The Beckham Experiment" by Sport Illustrated writer Grant Wahl depicted the folly of the Galaxy-man's first several seasons. The league's first "designated player" was supposed to be a game-changer; bring untold exposure and popularity to American soccer. Add in that his production was negligible, he danced back-and-forth with AC Milan in consecutive seasons, LA's post-season futility, and a number of high-profile skirmishes with fans left Beckham's image tarnished and his impact on MLS was reduced to a quaint sideshow. "Beckham 23" on the back with the Galaxy crest on the front may have been one of the hottest-selling jerseys of 2007, but four years later they were a bargain at Marshall's. His final contract year was shaping up to be as uneventful as the first four.


The European odyssey that Freddy launched was supposed to provide him with the quality of instruction he couldn't get in the United States. Under the guidance of European coaches, Adu would elevate his game and return stateside to contribute to the National Team in time for South Africa. There were questions of the diminutive striker's maturity and drive, but what kid didn't have those problems?


His time under contract with Benefica was a distaster. He saw just a scant 11 matches for the Portugese giants and spent the next four seasons on various loans: AS Monaco (France), Belenenses (Portugal), Aris (Greece), and Rizepor (Turkey). Adu saw more of Europe than a back-packing college student with daddy's credit card. Calls for poor Freddy to return to MLS got louder and louder; the kid, still only 22, was a bust in Europe.


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As the 2011 MLS season dawned it appeared to be like any other. Quiet, workman-like strides for the little domestic league that could. The difference? Two MLS has-beens are making the mark they should have years ago.


Beckham, in his last contract year, is having the best season since his arrival stateside. The Englishman is on target to play more games and more minutes that any of his previous four seasons. At ten assists so far this campaign, he's already tied a MLS-career best and the Galaxy sit atop the Western Conference. Finally, Beckham is even saying all the right things; talking up a potential contract renewal and the kind words about American soccer we'd hoped to hear all of these years.


"Yeah, there's a chance," said the 36-year old, former England captain. "I haven't made any decision about what I'm going to do after this year. I think it's important that I just concentrate on my play this year. I feel fit, I feel good in games, I feel as if I'm performing well. I need to continue that, and then in a few months I'll think about what I want to do at the end of the day."


Adu, too, have seen his fortunes turn dramatically in 2011. In his last tournament in charge of the United States National Team, Bob Bradley made Freddy a surprise addition to his Gold Cup roster. A cameo appearance on the squad turning into a starring role as he came on as a substitute in the semi-finals, made a spectacular pass the lead to a goal, and started and held his own in the final against Mexico.


Now the 22-year old, in the prime of his career, is returning to America and ironically, to his former D.C. United coach, Peter Nowak, now in charge of the Philadelphia Union. At his unveiling Adu spoke of the maturing he's done and the desire to prove himself in MLS where he failed before.


“I think I am a better player today than when I left MLS four years ago. Maturing helps a lot. As the years go on, you get older and start to put things together. As players your goal is always to play for the national team and represent your country,” said Adu. “But it’s one step at a time — you have to sort out your club situation and you have to be playing and making sure you are helping your team.”


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While neither will totally shed the title of American soccer "savior" they both have the opportunity to become (or in Beckham's case, already) solid contributors to their squads. Both the Galaxy and the Union are in prime position to make post-season runs with Beckham and Adu as cogs in the machine rather than the engines.

For Major League Soccer, the evolution of these two players into role-players rather than marketing men means the domestic game is emerging from being defined solely by it's biggest names. A diverse set of other designated players like Thierry Henry and Omar Bravo, stars yet not solo performers, and breakout youngsters (and homegrown) like Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo, and Bill Hamid gives the league a positive and strong identity it did not have in 2007 when Adu departed and Beckham arrived.

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