Can Freddy Adu Save U.S. Soccer?

Soccer fan or no, chances are you've heard of Freddy Adu (search).

The 14-year-old soccer phenom, touted as having the potential to be the greatest player ever, signed with D.C. United in 2003 and has been drawing in crowds ever since.

But whether the teenager can make soccer as American as baseball and apple pie is yet to be seen. Will this story have a happy ending? Will there be a champagne celebration for American soccer when Freddy is old enough to drink champagne?

"Having such mainstream media interest in Freddy is invaluable," said Trey Fitz-Gerald, Major League Soccer (search) spokesman. "Freddy's personality, his story and his talent have served as a vessel by which we are able to continue the education process for the sport and the league in this country."

At age 13, Adu, who emigrated from Ghana when he was 8 years old, became the youngest player ever on the U.S. Under-17 team, and the buzz over his professional career grew deafening.

While MLS has had well-known players, "Freddy has brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the league and the sport in this country," said Fitz-Gerald.

However, those who remember the hype around soccer legend Pele, who joined the North American Soccer League in the '70s but whose star-power could not save the system from crumbling, aren't so quickly caught up in the Adu-lation.

New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick said the demise of the league, even with Pele's involvement, shows that "no one is immune to rising and falling as a fad."

Blowing Adu out of proportion is a mistake, he said. "The savior, the marketing key to the kingdom... those labels are bothersome because if he isn't, the entire sport and enterprise is condemned."

Fitz-Gerald said the league is thinking long-term with Adu, who some say could finally bring soccer extended mainstream attention in the U.S.

"I think that he will maintain the interest," said Fitz-Gerald. "He wants to win a championship with D.C. United... be on the World Cup (search) team in Germany, and he talks about wanting to be the best player in the world....I don't think anyone that's around him considers this a flash in the pan."

Droves of fans who've never attended soccer matches have been showing up this season to watch Adu, said Fitz-Gerald, who expects fans to return even long after the player is no longer the latest sensation.

In 2003, D.C. United averaged 15,565 attendees per game. In 2004 those numbers are up: The home opener was a sell-out with 24,603 people.

"We could've sold another 10,000 tickets for that game, I'm sure," said Fitz-Gerald. "There has been so much anticipation for Freddy."

But despite many temporary upswings in the history of soccer fandom in the U.S., the sport has yet to catch on. In a country where touchdown dances, crushing homeruns and acrobatic slam-dunks are hailed, a 90-minute game that can end in a 0-0 tie is a struggle to sell, said Mushnick, who added that Adu alone will have trouble making the game a hit in the long run.

Mushnick added that newcomers of soccer who go only to see Adu may be discouraged if he, for any reason, doesn't play.

"If you were there initially to see Adu and that didn’t happen, chances are you were reminded what a dreadfully slow game it can be. If you don't appreciate the nuances of it, you won't go back."

Yet Fitz-Gerald is optimistic about soccer's appeal, whether it's fueled by Adu or someone else.

"Every sport has had their transcendent athlete," said Fitz-Gerald, citing the buzz Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods created in their sports. "I'm not saying Freddy is that person. We might not know right now who that person will be for us."

In the past, other young standouts have ignited a fire in fans, but the flames eventually extinguished.

Women's soccer sensation Mia Hamm became a household name after the 1996 Olympics, at which the U.S. women's team won the gold. And Brandy Chastain provided a signature moment in the '99 World Cup when she ripped off her shirt after scoring the championship-winning goal, and it seemed women's soccer had finally arrived in America.

But the attention the Women's World Cup received faded, leaving the Women's United Soccer Association foundering. The league had trouble drawing in older fans and TV ratings were almost nonexistent. In September 2003 the league folded.

And other hot young stars have fizzled in the past. Young Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was named Rookie of the Year in 1976, after posting a league-leading ERA and winning 19 games. Bird fever swept the country and thousands of fans turned out to see the young pitcher known for his wacky antics. But during spring training in 1977 he injured his knee, and an arm injury followed. After multiple surgeries and poor performances his career was over at 24 years old.

So while Adu is enjoying Fidrych-like fever among soccer fans, what will happen if he is injured?

Fitz-Gerald said D.C. United's coach is taking great care to slowly introduce Adu into pro play. So far Adu hasn't started a game, instead coming in during the second half and playing for about 30 minutes.

And Adu also isn’t the only player who brings in fans. Young Landon Donovan has developed a strong following. The San Jose Earthquakes' Web site this week is promoting its May 1 match as "Donovan vs. Adu."

Still, Adu is soccer's current golden boy. More than 20,000 tickets were sold for D.C. United home opener and a throng of fans holding signs with sentiments like "Freddy Adu We Love You!" screamed as though Britney was in the building. 

Adu has brought in audiences on TV too. The league's opening game on April 3 between D.C. United and the San Jose Earthquakes was the highest rated game the league has ever had on ABC, with ratings up nearly 80 percent from last 2003.

Todd Roby, spokesman for U.S. Youth Soccer, said Adu has made an undeniable impression on young players, but he also has a wide appeal.

"I think his major impact is he's created an awareness for those not familiar with the game," he said.

Mushnick said with all the Adu buzz, the player's long-term influence on soccer's popularity is yet to be seen. 

"It could be just a quick hit, a quick infusion of cash for a team when Freddy comes to town. But right now it's hard to predict anything greater than that," he said. "It's not ingrained as an American sport. If Freddy Adu was playing any other sport in this country it'd be front page news every day."

The MLS, while happy about all the attention on Adu, is determined not to put the weight of the sport's future on its new star's shoulders.

"He's compared to a lot of legendary athletes of the 20th century, but we're saying hold up a bit, he's only played in a few games, he still has to prove himself," said Fitz-Gerald.

"Labels have been put on him like 'the next Pele,' but a lot of teenagers have been dubbed that and no one remembers their names anymore."