Now that he has freed himself from much of the intense scrutiny that's followed his every step since the age of 14, maybe Freddy Adu can finally start to flourish.
By completing a switch from Real Salt Lake to famed Portuguese side Benfica, Adu can now focus fully on achieving the potential that made him the youngest player in MLS history amid predictions of greatness.
Sure, there will be some early interest in the 18-year-old Adu after deciding to join one of Europe's most prestigious teams, but no longer will he constantly be under the microscope.
Portugal has enough big personalities not to get overexcited about an incoming young star, however impressive a resume he has stowed in his hand luggage. A transfer price of $2 million is modest by European standards and is a small risk to take on Benfica's part, as the upside for it – if Adu becomes a fully fledged star – is huge.
Observers in Europe scoffed at the NBA's decision to impose a minimum age restriction on its players. The mentality in soccer circles around the globe is "If you are good enough, you're old enough." Yet at 14, Adu was not old enough, or, as it proved, good enough to make an impact on Major League Soccer. As a result, we have a teenager who is being written off as a bust by large sections of the U.S. soccer public, when he should still be talked of as a bright hope.
Benfica will allow Adu time to settle, and the club hopes it can gently nurture from him the sort of form he displayed for the United States in the recent Under-20 World Cup. (Better that than the sulky, dispirited attitude that got him traded to Real Salt Lake from D.C. United.)
Fernando Santos, the Benfica manager, is an astute judge of character and is looking forward to the mental challenge of drawing out Adu's best. Any special treatment he gives Adu will be administered with such subtlety that the player himself will not even notice. To all outward appearances, he will be treated as "one of the boys."
However, Santos is smart enough to know that because of Adu's unique history – he was signed to a multi-million dollar Nike contract when he was just 13 – his temperament must be handled gently.
Still, Santos and the rest of the Benfica backroom staff can only do so much. In reality, Adu's success or failure will hinge upon his own fortitude.
A new life in a foreign country is a terrific test for a youngster, even one who has experienced as much as Adu. There will be plenty of difficult times to deal with, especially if he thinks he will have any kind of guarantee in the starting lineup.
But if Adu keeps his mind clear and is driven to succeed, the Portuguese league could provide an ideal outlet for his skills. The pace is slower than MLS, where the general level of physical fitness is extraordinarily high. And in Portugal, skill and trickery is king, so Adu's flicks and tricks could make him a fan favorite.
Over to you, Freddy.
- Freddy Adu
- Real Salt Lake