Freddy Adu loves his commute. As he cruises through traffic in his navy Mercedes, on the 25 de Abril Bridge in Lisbon, the span's struts reflect in the lenses of his D&G shades while Lil Wayne thumps on the speakers. The 30-minute ride from his apartment to the Benfica training center features expansive views of the city's rust-colored rooftops, and the 19-year-old midfielder periodically glances out his window for a glimpse of the Tagus River and the enormous Cristo Rei statue overlooking Portugal's capital.
When traffic slows, near the center of the bridge, a tiny white Fiat pulls ahead on the right, and the backseat passenger starts gesturing toward Adu's car. The Fiat slows down, coming alongside the Mercedes, and despite his D&Gs and tinted windows, the three passengers recognize Adu and wave enthusiastically. He smiles and waves back. The fans linger alongside until cars in their lane start honking and the driver reluctantly speeds up. As they move away, the backseat passenger presses his hands against the window and gives a thumbs up sign to Benfica's American import. Adu waves again. "It happens more and more," he says.
Not bad for a kid who spent most of his first season overseas riding the pine. Adu's stylish appearances in European matches proved effective, earning him positive attention on both sides of the Atlantic. As a Benfica rookie, he made a lasting impression in his 413 minutes, scoring five goals, including a game winner, and inspiring a chorus of fans and media to ask, "Why is Adu on the bench?" His maturity also impressed others watching from afar: He was selected to the U.S. Under-23 team, and his four goals in three games paved the way to an Olympic berth—no small thing for a program that missed the field in 2004. After Benfica's season ended, in May, Adu helped energize the senior U.S. team in late spring friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina, then made his first appearance in a World Cup qualifier, an 8-0 rout of Barbados. Up close, teammates noticed his growth on several levels. "He's playing more quickly and more confidently," says Maurice Edu, one of the co-stars on the U-23 squad. "Now he's taken on a leadership role in our camps."
It's all a sign that life in Europe is agreeing with Adu. Despite his youth (he didn't turn 19 until June 2), it seems as if he's been around forever. He has survived enough scrutiny to burn out 20 pros, but the upside of always being the youngest guy on the team has finally begun to emerge. Freddy Adu's prime time is just beginning, even if everybody else expected it five years ago. Along the way to getting himself ready, Adu made some moves that many saw as counterproductive, like jumping from MLS power DC United to struggling Real Salt Lake in late 2006. Eyebrows arched again last year, when he chose Benfica as the launchpad for the European adventure he'd wanted all along. "A lot of people were surprised by my choices," he says. "But I didn't want to go from MLS to England or Spain, where there's even more media and I'd probably be sitting for a long, long time."
Calling his own shots and dealing with the little things in life has built Adu's confidence. In fact, it's his home away from home that has him feeling ready to deliver more pivotal performances in Beijing. He has been warmly received in Lisbon, and he's already conversational in Portuguese, thanks to TV subtitles, friendly teammates and bilingual friends. He zips all over the city to hit his favorite restaurants. At each one, he is serenaded with a chorus of "Boa noites!" (good evening), and the waiters don't bother bringing him menus because they know what he'll order (sushi and Italian food are favorites). When he's homesick, he heads to the Marriott for a bacon cheeseburger, with the local touch of a fried egg on top.
But playing for the biggest of the big three clubs in Portugal has its challenges, too. Benfica lost early in Champions League play and failed to finish in the top three for just the fourth time in the club's 104-year history. Once, when Adu thought he'd gotten out of a ticket for talking on his cell phone while driving, the officer wrote him up because the team had just lost. "If you want to challenge yourself, you want to be where soccer is basically everyone's life," Adu says. "People in Europe don't respect American soccer. You have to prove them wrong."
Adu is in the perfect situation to do just that. For the first time, he's just one of the guys—not the one getting the most money and attention. He's not a soccer messiah, and not a bust. It's a big relief. Touring the plush hallways at Benfica's training center, he talks about the NFL-caliber facility with the enthusiasm of a guy showing off a cool dorm room. He also says the camaraderie and support he got from teammates who thought he should be playing more helped him cope. "They went out of their way to make sure I was okay," he says.
It helped that Adu didn't gripe. Given what happened during his two seasons at DC United—public rifts over playing time—many people might have expected him to be openly disgruntled. But that is so Freddy at 16. Freddy at 18 didn't take it personally, because part of the problem was just bad luck. One league game after Adu's arrival last July, the coach who brought him in was fired, and the new coach, under pressure to win right away, played his best veterans (then resigned before season's end). "What I'm missing in games, I've got to work three times as hard to make up for in training," Adu says. "I do extra fitness, and I've been taking free kicks nonstop since I've been here. Those have become real weapons for me."
This fall, Adu will play for coach Quique Sánchez Flores, whom he's hoping to impress enough to break into the starting 11. "Phase 1 is complete: to make a difference when I'm given the chance," Adu says. "Phase 2 is to be a regular starter. Becoming a 90-minute player will put me at the next level. That's when it all comes together."
For a while now, Adu has been in a phase where it seems like growing up can't happen fast enough. He had to convince his mother, Emelia, that he could handle the move to Portugal, then reassure her that she didn't need to visit all the time. "I feel like an adult now," he says. "Especially coming here not speaking the language and being able to get everything taken care of myself. I learned a lot, and now I can focus on soccer."
Standing on the balcony of his three-bedroom apartment, Adu can see Benfica's Estádio da Luz in the distance, like a festive red salad bowl tucked on a shelf of gray buildings. It's a long way from Tema, the port city in Ghana that he left at age 8 when his family won a U.S. immigration lottery. At 14, he became the youngest athlete in more than a century to sign a contract in a major American sports league. But while that $2.15 million, four-year deal with DC United saved his family financially, it also made him the top-paid player in MLS. The expectations were crazy. Dubbed the "savior of American soccer" and "the next Pelé," Adu became a child-star marketing machine, while confronting jealousy, skepticism and opposition from the full-grown players he was supposed to be dominating. That he hasn't gone bonkers, Gary Coleman-style, suggests there's also a mental aspect to his talent: Filtering the flattery and capriciousness of adults is no small feat.
Adu's cheery exterior doesn't cloud over often, but it does when he talks about his hardest days, as a 12-year-old at U.S. Soccer's Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. "Some of my teammates just straight hated on me," he says. The physical-size difference kept him from retaliating against his tormentors, who were not above banging him up on the field. Things got so bad that team psychologist Trevor Moawad stepped in, and four players were cut as a result. "I was just a mess," says Adu, visibly disturbed at the memory. "I could have just cracked and quit soccer." But then the cloud passes, and he talks about getting apologies from some of the culprits (whom he won't name). "I asked one guy, 'Why were you so mean to me?'" Adu says. "He said, 'I was stupid. You were young, and you were good. Deep down, most of us wished we had your talent.' "
Looking back, Adu has more compassion for how those guys and countless others must have felt to have "some kid" come in and take their place. But he's never quite understood the anger some people still display toward him for being overhyped. After all, he didn't hype himself, although he admits that during his first two years as a pro, having fun was more important than working hard: "I was like, 'Man, I'm rich and famous!'" Even so, Adu was astonished when he realized how quickly he'd been written off. Moawad, who continued working with the young pro, sent him an article in April 2007 that proved a blessing in the form of an insult. "In the first line, the author wrote, 'I want to be the first to call Freddy Adu a failure,'" Adu recalls. "That lit a fire under me. I didn't know until that moment that it was that bad, that people were giving up on me."
He felt his dream flicker, and with his back against the wall, he delivered at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, scoring three goals against Poland and dominating against Brazil to help the U.S. advance to the quarterfinals. "I had no choice," he says. "I didn't take anything for granted anymore."
While many of the exalted expectations about Adu have fallen away, a few facts remain: He can do beautiful, original things on the ball, things most other players can't do. "I'm weird because when I'm challenged, I sometimes let go and do things on the field that I didn't know I was capable of," he says.
The hype may have been premature, but Adu wants to be worthy of it by the end of his career. He also knows the bar is high: Pelé, Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo. "There are tons of B and C versions of those guys," says U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley. "Conversations about Freddy often include talk of greatness. It is a legitimate discussion, but it still has to be seen."
Adu's U.S. teammates hope to see more of it this summer. "The things he can do on the ball are special," says midfielder Landon Donovan. "But Freddy is still mostly playing in parts of the field where he feels comfortable. When he starts getting the ball in harder situations, that's where you're going to see the most growth."
Adu won't argue that. He has come to understand that he'll have to harvest his own gift, and manage the supply and demand for it, as well. "I want to achieve something no American soccer player has ever achieved—to be considered among the world's elite," he says. "I know I have the talent, and I'm not going to waste it. I've just got to keep on getting there. I have a huge head start. "