This was always supposed to be Freddy Adu's year. And Freddy Adu's World Cup.
From the surreal moment in May 2003 when Nike pulled out its pocketbook and slapped a cool million dollars on the back of a precociously talented ninth-grade soccer sensation, Adu was earmarked for success in 2010. Back then, it was not a case of if the Ghana-born, Maryland-raised 13-year-old would emerge as a superstar, but when. While the 2006 World Cup in Germany was seen as being too early, there was little doubt that by 2010 he would be happily ensconced at a major European club and be ready to spearhead the United States' challenge in South Africa.
So now, with the World Cup just a few months away, why is Adu kicking his heels on loan in the Greek league, with fellow American Eddie Johnson for company? And why is he so far away from national team selection that his best chance of getting to the tournament is paying for his own airfare and buying a ticket as regular fan?
Adu is still only 20 but his career has hit roadblocks at virtually every turn with each new direction only seeming to lead to another dead end. As time ticks by, there is an increasing danger that he will go down as a footnote in American soccer history, a cautionary tale to be brought out when the hype machine flares up to herald the next generation's boy wonder.
"When young players try to move their careers along, there are no givens, no guarantees, and that is the way the game works," USA coach Bob Bradley said. "Whatever team you are in you need to establish yourself and what you are all about, show you are someone who helps, that you are a winner, someone that does things that count. That is the challenge.
"It is about the way you train, the way you act, your ability to perform under pressure, regardless of what is written or said or how good people think you are going to be. That is how the game works for everybody."
To his credit, Adu has not given up hope. Within moments of the World Cup draw being made last December, he publicly revealed his desperation to be involved in the squad, comments which prompted some incredulous mirth in the studio of ESPN's broadcast.
Having ground to a halt at Benfica (the Portuguese club that acquired him from Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake in 2007), Adu was loaned to Greek side Aris this month in search of some playing time. It is there in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, that he and Johnson – who looked destined for big things with the USA himself after a flying start to his international career only to flounder in England with Fulham – share a common goal that is likely to prove impossible.
At least in Greece, the pair is likely to see action and cling to the desperate hope of forcing their way into coach Bob Bradley's thoughts before the final U.S. World Cup squad is announced.
Johnson is five years older than his new teammate, yet it is Adu whose name in more recognizable to the general sports public in America. Adu has operated under scrutiny ever since that $1 million deal was announced the same week as Nike penned a certain high school basketball star to a big contract.
Seven years later, LeBron James is an international icon. Adu would be happy just to get a game every week.
"Freddy is still young and he will tell you there are things along the way he did right and things he did wrong," Bradley said. "Now he has to take all those things to the situation he is in and show he is continuing to grow.
"Just like any other player we watch and see how it goes. There is no other way around it."
Both Adu and Johnson accepted the challenge of playing in Greece with the idea that it may be their best shot at World Cup selection. It is unlikely to be anything other than a forlorn hope. The Greek league has some strong teams, with Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, AEK Athens and PAOK Salonika all boasting deep rosters and dominating the top spots every year. After that, though, the level drops off significantly, meaning there are relatively few chances to produce something genuinely eye-catching against top-class opposition.
Last week, Adu produced a nice pass to set up Johnson for what was a consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat to Xanthi. Was it better than sitting on the bench? Yes. Is it enough to put them in Bradley's considerations?
Not even close.
Group C watch
England – The Football Association has left the decision on whether John Terry remains as captain solely up to head coach Fabio Capello.
Algeria – Racing Santander's Mehdi Lacen is likely to make his first international appearance in a friendly against Serbia on March 3.
Slovenia – Captain Robert Koren remained with West Bromwich Albion during the January transfer window after assurances of extra playing time from boss Roberto Di Matteo.
DaMarcus Beasley was trying to put a brave face on the sickening attack which saw his car blown up at his Glasgow home. "I'm doing OK and I'm in the market for a new car," he joked. "Just glad no one got hurt."
It took 12 years, but finally the long-rumored saga involving John Harkes' alleged affair with Eric Wynalda's wife ahead of the 1998 World Cup was finally made public this week. Wynalda referenced the issue during his "Fox Football Fone-In" show on Monday, and 1998 head coach Steve Sampson broke his long silence the following day.
World Cup numerology
126 – The number of goals scored at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden where a 17-year-old Pele helped Brazil claim the trophy.
The walking wounded (Gooch, Charlie and Deuce)
Oguchi Onyewu – Gooch's knee tendon is on the mend and AC Milan head coach Leonardo admitted last week that the big American will be back in Italy within the next few weeks. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 85 percent.
Charlie Davies – The speedy striker underwent elbow surgery this week as he continues rehab from a car crash last October. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 15 percent.
Clint Dempsey – Our Fulham "mole" tells us that Deuce is progressing "slowly but surely" as he recovers from right knee ligament damage. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 95 percent.
Put it on your calendar
February 9 – A fresh batch of World Cup tickets will be made available to United States residents on a first-come, first-served basis.