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Former prodigy Adu takes a second kick at MLS

Freddy Adu can say it now. He was spoiled.

A pro at just 14, the youngest ever to play for the U.S. two years later, Adu was christened the next Pele — and the petulant teen phenom believed the hype. When he was benched, Adu lashed out at the disciplinarian coach. When he turned 16, Adu drove a 2006 BMW 330i and proclaimed, "everything is me in this car."

He was billed as the next one-word superstar like Tiger, LeBron, Shaq.

He would win World Cups for the United States and maybe play for Arsenal or Chelsea by his early 20s.

Yet six years after his debut in Major League Soccer, Adu was miles removed from England's Premier League or even a packed house in Washington roaring in delight, tingling in anticipation of each move by soccer's boy wonder.

He sat scared in Greece on his team's bus as it was attacked by overzealous fans.

His own team's fans.

Hooligans pelted the bus with rocks and shattered windows all because Adu's Aris FC lost a game in Thessaloniki to its city rival. Waiting for police to clear a lane back to the hotel, Adu's lone thought was, get me out of here.

"It was one of the craziest things to happen to me," Adu said. "I'm like, man, this is not what I envisioned when I wanted to be a pro athlete."

Few parts of his career have developed the way Adu expected.

Once billed as American soccer's savior, Adu found himself stuck in Greece last year with his career in shambles. He had bounced around European teams on a series of unsuccessful loans that left him forgotten by the public in the United States and an afterthought for a meaty role on the U.S. national team. Former national team coach Bob Bradley had no use for him on the U.S. roster for last year's World Cup in South Africa.

On top of the world as a teen, Adu stopped having fun playing the game he loved.

"When I didn't get called up to the World Cup team, that really hit me," Adu said. "That's always been a goal of mine. When I didn't get a chance to go, I really sat back. For me, the rest of the year, was the worst time of my career. The worst. When I went back to Aris, the team said my salary was too high and basically tried to bully me into taking a paycut by not allowing me to train with team. Everything was bad."

He wasn't the next Pele. Adu wasn't even the next Preki. Or Landon Donovan. He was a high-priced globetrotting journeyman, playing ball in Portugal or Greece or Turkey, trying to find a perfect fit before he ran out of time to rediscover the talent that made him such a prodigy and a pro at 14.

Now 22, Adu has returned to MLS and the Philadelphia Union, still dreaming of a career stuffed with national team glory and Premier League uniforms.

But he comes back to the United States a mature and humbled young man. He has reunited with his former D.C. United coach, Peter Nowak — the disciplinarian — with the hope of salvaging his pro career and proving that, yes, he can still blossom into the superstar so many experts and fans pegged him to become.

"Some people might think I came back to MLS because I didn't have any offers," Adu said. "This is where I want to be."

He knew he didn't want to play in Greece.

After being snubbed for the World Cup roster, Adu found a way to terminate his contract with Aris and chose in January to play for a second-division team, Caykur Rizespor, in Turkey. It's akin to an NBA lottery pick asking for a spot in the D-League. But all Adu wanted was to play soccer. Turkey offered the best chance for regular playing time, even if the competition didn't stack up with the world's elite.

"You had to really swallow your pride to say, I'll go play in the second division," he said. "It's not where you want to be. But you had to be mature in this decision. I got much better playing in the second division in Turkey because I played every week. I was part of something. I was part of a team making a run to get promoted."

Adu's move paid off and he earned his own personal promotion: Bradley selected Adu for this summer's Gold Cup.

Adu led the U.S. to the Gold Cup final in June with a long, slanting pass to Donovan for the only goal in the semifinal against Panama. His corner kick in the championship game set up Michael Bradley's goal in an eventual loss.

"You have to think about starting from scratch and working your way up," Adu said. "That was my mentality."

Starting over is tough to imagine for a long-ago budding prospect like Adu.

Soccer was easy as a child. Born in Ghana, he trained with top youth athletes at the IMG Soccer Academy in Florida before signing with MLS in 2003.

He forged a friendship with IMG's Trevor Moawad, at the time the program's mental conditioning coach, a bond that has endured through all of Adu's travels. Moawad says Adu deserved the spotlight as a child because he was clearing all the benchmarks for soccer players of his age groups. Even if it seemed now a mistake for Adu to turn pro at 14, making him the youngest player on a major U.S. pro team in more than 115 years, Moawad says he believed the precocious teen was ready to handle the rigors of professional soccer.

"We never anticipated that adapting would be a problem for him at the professional level," Moawad said. "I think that those issues were probably more significant than I would have thought they'd be."

Moawad tried to prep Adu by arranging him to spend time with superstar athletes like sprinter Michael Johnson and NFL star Anquan Boldin. Even Jaleel White — best-known for his role as Steve Urkel on "Family Matters."

"People wondered, why are you having him spend time with Urkel," Moawad said. "Urkel was having to deal with these incredibly complex issues at the age of 13. Who else could (Adu) empathize with and understand what he was going through at a young age?"

While Adu admits having his doses of fun — a student newspaper at the University of Maryland quoted students as saying they witnessed the underaged Adu drinking at various keg parties on campus — he was socially isolated from his older teammates. They went to clubs or home to their families.

Adu spent time with his mother.

"Who are you going to hang out with," Adu asked, "when you're 14?"

And when playing time and goals didn't come as effortlessly as foreseen, it was Nowak who took the brunt of the criticism. Adu wasn't shy about popping off and going public with his frustration over his role while in Washington.

"There was always a lot of advertisement at the time, 'Come watch Freddy Adu and D.C. United.' Then the game comes and I'm on the bench," Adu said. "Just stuff like that. At the time, I should have handled myself better.

"It's difficult to not get a little carried away, which is what happened. I admit it. I did get carried away with all that. It was difficult for a 14, 15, 16 year old to handle that."

His mother, Emelia, was a heavy factor in his decision to turn pro. With his father out of the picture since Adu was 8, Emelia Adu worked two jobs to support her two sons. Adu's $500,000 rookie salary was the highest in the league and he netted a $1 million endorsement deal from Nike. Emelia Adu hasn't worked since Freddy turned pro.

"Even if I suffered for it, so be it," Adu said. "That's a sacrifice I was going to make for my family, for sure. I'd do it a million times out of million if I had the same opportunity."

MLS was eager to take advantage of Adu's sizable publicity push. Interviews with David Letterman and "60 Minutes" allowed Adu to flash that megawatt smile and outgoing personality — a trait he claims was often mistaken for not being serious enough about soccer. He put fans in the seats and moved MLS out of the glut of fringe sports to the mainstream.

"I'm not sure looking back on the whole Freddy Adu experience that we managed it as well as we could have," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "But hindsight is 20-20. The league was very different then. Freddy was different then. He was a very young guy with a lot of attention on him and the league needed it. The sport needed it. Freddy needed it. And I'm not sure he was able to handle it. Now that he's back, at the ripe age of 22, I think he has a lot of soccer ahead of him — and he's in the right place."

Adu and Nowak patched up their differences long ago, and Adu stayed in touch with Nowak while he played four years in Europe. Adu, a two-time MLS All-Star, was able to arrange a free transfer from Benfica of the Portuguese first division to MLS, in part, because of his relationship with Nowak.

The pair won an MLS Cup together in 2004. Nowak found a player who can no longer scoot by on hype alone.

"We've become closer to each other," Nowak said. "We've understood each other more and more. It's a great sign he could be part of my team again."

The Union found footing in a crowded sports market and can fill their sparkling stadium without Adu's name value. He wasn't signed to become the centerpiece of a marketing campaign. The midfielder returned to MLS simply as another valuable member of a team chasing a championship.

Nothing more.

He jokes he feels like an old 22 even though he boasts he's young at heart.

"I wouldn't change anything that has happened to me," Adu said. "It's made me a much better person, a much better player."