Freddy Adu has already played a lifetime of football – and he is only 23 years old.
The Ghana-born attacker was offered a six-figure contract at the age of 10, signed with Major League Soccer at 14 and was living alone in Europe at 18.
Now back in MLS with the Philadelphia Union, the USA international tells his story as the midfielder looks to return overseas to compete against the best in the world.
Inter’s six-figure offer to a 10-year-old
“I knew about the Inter offer and I wanted to do it because they are a big team and I was like: “Oh My God! They want me? I’m going to go!” My mum was like: “no”, because she wanted me to go to school. We didn’t come to America for football.
“We came for a better life and better education, to make something for ourselves. My mum said: “No, you are too young. I want you to go to school”. It’s amazing because it was a six-figure offer and my mum said no to it, we were pretty poor at the time.
“At that point I was so young, I had only been in America for two years or so, it was too much too early, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I am just happy the way everything else turned out.”
‘The new Pele’ signs with MLS
“I was ready [at 14 years old], that’s why I did it. I felt ready, I just didn’t know what went into it. I did not know how much pressure I was going to be under. All of that came after I decided to become a pro. It was definitely tough as a young kid.
“I didn’t have a normal life, I had to live a grown-up life. Everywhere I went, I had to be on my best behaviour because everybody knew who I was. I was not allowed to be a kid.
“I was young and naive at the time. I was just happy to be a pro, I was just happy that I had a chance to play and get paid to do what I love. I was able to take care of my family at the time.
It worked out, but for me it was good and bad. The good is you get paid, you get to help your family out and all that stuff. The bad is obviously the pressure and the loss of what was my childhood.
Transferred to Portugal
“That was the first time I was away from home, away from America. I was living on my own at 18 and it was a huge culture shock. I went to Benfica because I was advised by my family and my agents to go there. Mostly it was my agents, I knew Benfica was a big club competing in Champions League and that was pretty cool.
“But, looking back at it, I should have probably gone to a mid-table team, in a good league somewhere, a place where I would play and develop. At Benfica, there was a lot of pressure to win right now. I went through three coaches in a year.
“It’s funny because I got there at the same time as [Angel] Di Maria and those guys. We were all playing and I was playing better than those guys. I had like six goals in league and cup games the first six months I was there.
“Then I came home and played with the US Olympic team for qualifiers. When I get back there is a new coach. Soon after, that coach was gone as well. I just went through too many coaches. For a young player, that’s not good.
“Eventually they chose a coach who didn’t want to rely too much on young players. I was surplus to requirements for them, so they just loaned me out to team after team.”
“It was great to be named captain [of the 2008 USA Olympic team] by my peers and coaches. It was amazing. I did everything I could within my power, I got some assists, I just wanted to lead by example. [In 2012 Olympic qualifying], we were leading and I was on the bench after being subbed in the 90th minute. Watching the team get eliminated from the Olympics was hard. It was the most painful moment of my career so far.
“I really wanted to play in the Olympics, especially in London. I just broke down in tears. I cannot remember the last time I cried up to that point. It hurt me, but it has made me a better player because I just don’t want to experience that ever again. Sitting at home during the Olympics, watching Mexico do what they did, it p***ed me off even more. I’m not going to lie, because they are our biggest rivals. It rubs it in even more.”
“It was a hard decision for me to go to Turkey, but I loved my time there. That’s where I found love for the game again. I had lost it somewhere along the way and once I went there it just woke me back up. It was just different. I lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The field that we played on wasn’t great, neither was the stadium, but it was just pure football. It was like grassroots football, it was amazing and I really loved it.
“I performed in Turkey and it got me back with the national team. Then I had to make a decision if I wanted to go back to Europe or stay in the USA I had bounced around and been loaned out to so many teams [four times total] and I knew I did not want to go through that again. I came to a point where I said: “Listen, I want to stay here in the states and just play.
” I did not want to worry about the other stuff. You want to be at a place where they own your rights and they have a vested interest in you. When you go out on loan, those teams don’t really get anything out of that. You’re on loan, they expect you to come in right away and help them win. They don’t really care about your development.
“The appeal [of signing with Philadelphia] was working with people I was familiar with and being around players I had played with in the past – Brian Carroll, Josh Gross, Peter Nowak and John Hackworth.
“I had played under Hackworth at various youth teams and Nowak at D.C. I had worked under both with the national team as well. Just the familiarity with them and being close to home.
“When you are going through all those things in Europe and not having your family right there with you as a young player, it’s very difficult. In a way, I think I went to Europe too early so that’s why I decided this time, if I am going to do it again, I am going to do it the right way. I’ll come back and play here and play a couple years and get games under my belt and some seasons under my belt. Then I can make that move [to Europe] because I still want to go to Europe by the age of 25, or a little before.
National team return
“It was amazing to get a chance to be with the guys again. I keep in touch with all of them, guys like Jozy Altidore, [Carlos] Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey. It was amazing to be in camp, to be around them and play with them. To be with them for about a month, I loved it. I put my head down and just played. With me, it’s never the talent. It’s always the off-field stuff, it’s the perceived impression that people get off on me. People hear this and that, but once they get to know me, they think I’m very different. I was young, I have grown up a lot, people are starting to realise that.
“Jurgen Klinsmann called me as soon as he was appointed coach and brought me into the Mexico camp after I had been on holiday for about two months. I didn’t play in that game against Mexico because I had not been training. I haven’t played for the national team since the Gold Cup final. Obviously it’s not a great feeling. As a player you would like to be playing. When you are voted by the fans as the best player in the national team during a final of a big tournament, you would hope that you’d get a chance to play. If you don’t do well then you lose your spot, but I kind of lost my spot due to a change in coaches.
“I’m just glad I went through everything I went through at an early age. If I had turned pro at the normal age, I would be 28, 29 right now and putting everything together.
“It would be too late. I’m just glad I am able to put everything together and go through everything I did. As a 23-year-old, the rookies in here right now are 22 and I’m only 23 and I have nine years on them.
“It’s definitely a blessing and I am glad it happened. Now I am able to put everything together and just go after it.
“I did receive harsher criticism because when you are talented or when people feel you have the talent and you are not playing up to your potential, they’ll get on you.
“I think the most talented players get the harshest criticism, it just comes with the territory, you got to have tough skin. Honestly, when I first went to the league, I just hung out with the younger guys like Brian Carroll, [Alecko] Eskandarian and Josh Gros because there was some jealousy with the older guys.
“They didn’t respond to me well. They were not friendly with me, they would talk about you behind your back, talk about you even when you’re right there too. It wasn’t fun, especially when you come in as the highest-paid player in the league as a 14-year-old.
“I had to deal with all that and like I said, I am glad I saw it first-hand and at an early age. You would hope that never happens since we’re a team it shouldn’t be like that, but it happens. You have just got to stay above it.”