Freddy Adu Says Hello

Like millions of other kids, Freddy Adu will be driven to soccer practice by his mom next spring. Not much else is ordinary about this 14-year-old phenom.

Sure, he loves to listen to rappers Eminem and 50 Cent, has posters of David Beckham and Maradona in his room and lists "Lord of the Rings" as his favorite movie.

But no other teenage soccer player will make hundreds of thousands of dollars in the United States and has been called everything from the next Pele to the LeBron James of MLS.

"If you're good enough, you're old enough," Adu said Wednesday, a day after signing with Major League Soccer. "If you feel like you're ready to go, hey, give it a shot."

He'll start his career with DC United, hoping to earn a place in the starting lineup and play his way onto the U.S. team for the 2006 World Cup, which starts a week after his 17th birthday.

"I like to think of myself as having a pretty good chance," he said.

Already, MLS is ready for Freddy. His new team's opener on April 3 will be televised nationally by ABC. What viewers could see is a boy showing rare speed and skill against men.

At 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, Adu looks too small to be a pro, but there's time for him to fill out.

"He's a very graceful athlete. His first touch and his vision are outstanding for a player of his age," U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena said.

Adu, who left Ghana in 1997 and became a U.S. citizen in February, was introduced by MLS at Madison Square Garden, where the soccer world gathered 12 years earlier for the preliminary draw for the 1994 World Cup.

He sounds far more mature than most 14-year-olds; he's scheduled to finish high school in March. But when you're regarded as the top soccer prospect in America — the world, according to MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis — it's tough to be just another teenager.

"It's been pretty hard, I guess, but I have fun with it," Adu said. "Sometimes you go out, you want to have fun with your friends and stuff, but you go out, people recognize you and just swarm you, and you've got to start to give autographs."

Manchester United, Chelsea and PSV Eindhoven tried to sign him, according to his agent, Richard Motzkin. But if he had gone to Europe, soccer's complicated rules probably would have limited him to a youth team rather than a top club until 2007, when he turns 18.

In MLS, he can play as soon as DC United thinks he's ready. It also allows him to stay at home.

"It just gives me chance to be me, really, be with my family and just be a normal kid," he said. "Everyone is like, 'Oh, could you have signed with European teams?' I could have, but I decided not to because I have a long way to go, and I want to mature and be at home for a little bit. And when the right time comes, I get the opportunity to go."

MLS gave him a four-year contract with a two-year league option. While no details were disclosed, league officials say that for "special" players, there are marketing agreements that give them more than the maximum salary, $280,000.

If he gets on the field with DC United next season, Adu would become the youngest player for a major American team since 14-year-old Fred Chapman debuted for Philadelphia of major league baseball's American Association in 1887, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In a way, Adu's life will be more normal starting next year. He's mostly been away from his Maryland home since early 2002 to take part in the U.S. Under-17 team's residency program in Bradenton, Fla. He looks forward to returning home.

His neighborhood is far different than his surroundings growing up in Tema, Ghana.

Adu started kicking a ball when he was about 2½ and learned to play in bare feet on fields littered with rocks and broken bottles, he said.

He came to the United States after his mother, Emelia, won a State Department visa lottery, hoping to improve the education of her two boys. Adu has a 12-year-old brother, Fro.

At first, he tried other sports. "I was hooked on basketball for a while," he said. At other times he thought it had been a mistake to move from Ghana, where soccer is king.

"It got to a point where I was just like, 'Oh, God, I'm never going to get a chance to play and have fun like I used to,"' he said. "But you know what, I was wrong about that."

It will take years for Adu to show whether he's soccer's next great star. Arena said it was impossible to forecast just how good Adu will be.

"There are young athletes in every sport in this country and around the world that are highly regarded by the adults at early ages that never meet the expectations of the adults," he said.

By Ronald Blum