Sorry for the obvious title pun; it was too easy to pass up. On Monday, US National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced the preliminary roster for the upcoming World Cup. There were no big surprises but it did get me thinking about one player who, years ago, we all thought (or at least hoped) would be a big part of the US national team in 2014, but instead is entirely out of the picture: Freddy Adu.
A lot has already been written about Freddy, most of it from the predictable standpoint of his failure to meet expectations and/or the effect his supposed attitude problems have had on this failure. And indeed, there is clearly some truth to this, and unfortunately Freddy has become a bit of a cautionary tale on what happens to a person’s psyche when you anoint him as “the future” at such a young age.
But what I think is often overlooked in an discussion of Freddy is an analysis of his actual skillset on the soccer field. And to me, this is where we really see why Freddy has not blossomed the way we thought he would, and also perhaps why, in retrospect, we should have expected much less from him in the first place. So let’s start by talking about what player Freddy is, and isn’t.
Freddy Adu’s biggest skill is his creativity and vision with the ball. He is a very good dribbler and has exceptional touch and vision, which allows him to see open teammates and make pinpoint passes that other players cannot. Evidence of this can be found in Freddy’s brief but impressive “comeback” during the 2011 Gold Cup.
Freddy is not, however, especially fast, nor is he strong. Due to his small size and relative lack of strength, he gets pushed off the ball fairly easily. He is also a poor defensive player, due partly to this lack of strength as well as poor defensive instincts and a relative disinterest in playing defense.
After looking at Freddy’s skillset, we’re left to determine exactly what position Freddy can play. While his pinpoint passing accuracy might imply that he’d make a good winger (crossing balls into the box), Freddy’s lack of speed, as well as the fact that outside players need to play defense, precludes this possibility. Similarly, while this passing ability might be effective as a deep-lying playmaker (finding forward players with longer passes), once again, midfielders in this position need to be effective defenders. Indeed, even attack-minded midfielders need to be able to play some defense.
What, then, about playing forward? Well, while Freddy can shoot, he’s not a natural poacher or finisher (think former Italian legend Pippo Inzaghi or Spain’s Fernando Morientes, or Americans Chris Wondolowski or Herculez Gomez). Nor does he have the speed to stretch the backline (like Daniel Sturridge or pre-accident Charlie Davies). He certainly doesn’t have the size or strength to be a hold-up forward (like former England stalwart Emily Heskey, or Jozy Altidore on a good day), nor does he have the natural, innate ability to create and finish (think Luis Suarez or Robin Van Persie; I wish I had an American example of this kind of player to cite). Really, Freddy doesn’t fit the mold of any type of forward.
So where, exactly, can Freddy play? Well, really the only place for him is to play behind a forward, creating for that forward as well as himself and players advancing from behind. This position requires minimal defensive play, thereby downplaying Freddy’s limitations in that area. However, most teams do not play with this kind of setup; and when they do, it generally is because the team has recognized a player’s specific skillset and tailored their offensive style around the player. Indeed, when a team does use this formation, it is usually occupied by the team’s best player, and created in order to give this player freedom to make plays. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, sometimes occupy this role. What this means for Freddy, though, is that the only position he plays is one that most teams don’t utilize, and when they do, it is already occupied by their best player.
So basically, Freddy either needs to unseat a team’s best player (unlikely) or to find a team willing to structure their offensive structure around his abilities. And quite frankly, his abilities are not so transcendent that good teams are willing to do this. This is likely why, while he manages to get trials with teams, they rarely keep him. Indeed, Freddy’s best bet is to find a smaller team that is willing to build their offense around his skills. This is likely what occurred during his successful stint in the Turkish second division a few years ago (I can’t confirm this, since I don’t watch many games in the Turkish second tier…). But really, what this all means is that, due to Freddy’s limited, though in a way exceptional, skillset, and his defensive and physical limitations, we probably should have tempered our expectations long ago. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and Freddy is still relatively young and could have a fairly successful career, but we never should have seen him as a future superstar in the first place.