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Slowly but surely, Adu changing critics' tune

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TIANJIN, China – It is always a dangerous business to praise Freddy Adu too much.

It is much easier to talk him down, even when he fully deserves to be recognized for a job well done.

It is much easier to call him an underachiever and to highlight the flaws which he, like pretty much any other 19-year-old, has.

And it is much easier to ignore the fact that he is the most technically gifted player the United States has produced in recent memory.

Adu-bashing is a sport within a sport in U.S. soccer circles. For some, it is much more appealing than the alternative of taking a sober look at reality.

Adu is not perfect, far from it. But U.S. soccer saw a glimpse of a brighter tomorrow on Sunday, and Adu was an integral part of it.

It was not about the result, a 2-2 draw against Holland, the European Under-21 champions.

It was about the performance and the striking clarity that this is a team that’s coming of age in a hurry.

Even when they trailed toward the end of the first half, head coach Peter Nowak’s team was playing the sort of soccer we do not expect from U.S. sides.

It was free-flowing. It was bold. And more than anything else, it was dominant.

Gerald Sibon’s last-ditch free-kick in the dying seconds of injury time robbed the United States of a victory it fully deserved.

Now, instead of having a place in the quarterfinals safely wrapped up, a showdown with Nigeria beckons on Wednesday.

With Adu and midfield stalwart Michael Bradley both suspended for that game, there is a reasonable chance that the U.S. challenge could be cut short at the end of the group stage.

Even if it does, this must go down as a successful tournament – just as a fortuitous run to the medal rounds on the back of mediocre performances should have been regarded a failure if things had happened that way.

Men’s soccer, with its Under-23 age classification, cannot be regarded the same way as other Olympic sports. It is not the be-all and end-all. It is about looking forward rather than instant gratification, hard as that is for some to swallow.

Many members of this lineup figure to be involved in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa – when the United States' standing in the world game will really be on the line.

The brightest of that group is Adu, simply because he is a potential match winner.

Bradley is solid as a rock and is likely to do a fine job for whichever European club pries him away from Dutch side Heerenveen.

Altidore is a powerful physical specimen who should continue to develop now that he has joined Villareal in Spain .

It is Adu, though, who could be the X-Factor. Monaco, the French league club for whom he will play this season with a view to a permanent move from Benfica, must be delighted with his effort on Sunday.

They would do well to take a look at how Nowak works with him, an odd little relationship of give and take but one that seems to be working well.

“I really enjoyed the role I had,” Adu said. “I had some freedom to move inside and outside and I felt it was one of the best games I have had for the U.S.”

Adu repeatedly ran at the Dutch defense, giving Dirk Marcellis an especially torrid time. Marcellis’ only effective method of stopping Adu was bringing him down, and he was caught out with a pass through his legs that set up Sacha Kljestan’s equalizer.

Adu took the low pretournament expectations of the men’s squad personally, and vowed to prove critics wrong.

“We have opened some people’s eyes tonight,” he said. “For some reason, people wanted to knock us and say we couldn’t achieve much here. We have shown what we are about as a team, and there is more to come.”

There will only be more if Nigeria can be negotiated in Beijing, a tough enough task even if Adu and Bradley had been available.

Adu will miss out after a challenge on Dutch goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer. He got to the ball first but was probably asking for trouble by raising his foot.

At that point, Team USA was leading 2-1 after Kljestan and Altidore had struck following Ryan Babel’s early goal for Holland.

Nowak decided to replace Adu with Benny Feilhaber at that point, a move that cannot be criticized or held accountable for the equalizer.

Adu was unhappy to be taken off, perhaps understandable given his performance for 80 minutes. He could be seen mouthing the word “why” as he jogged to the touchline.

He still has a lot to learn, but things are starting to click into place.

Praising Freddy Adu is starting to get a little less dangerous.