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All systems are go in education of Adu

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Freddy Adu has just finished practicing with D.C. United and is lugging an equipment bag and water jugs off the turf field across from RFK Stadium.

"It's a rookie thing," he says, smiling. "You've got to do it."

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Only two nights before, Adu had brought 17,000 fans to their feet in the 72nd minute of a game against the L.A. Galaxy -- a game United wound up tying, 1-1, when he unloaded a shot that banged off a goal post. He brought them out of their seats again a few minutes later when he let go a kick that forced the goalie into a diving save.

But Adu, perhaps the biggest draw in Major League Soccer at the moment, is indeed a rookie. The forward is a 15-year-old rookie, at that. Leaving the field, he hurries to catch up to coach Peter Nowak for the walk back to the locker room.

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As trailing players watch, laughter erupts between the coach and his young player, and Nowak gives Adu a playful push. Moments later, Adu is back by his side. Nowak wraps a strong arm around Adu's thin shoulders for a hug, and the scene is repeated with modifications all the way back to the stadium.

"This season is harder on him because everyone expects too much from him," said Nowak after Adu has entered the locker room. "I'm really impressed with how he has handled it, but Freddy can't go anywhere without being recognized.

"He needs our help. He needs our discipline. He needs all of us to make him feel comfortable. On that walk, we talked about life ... and everyone needs a hug."

Even Adu, who is a precocious boy, but still a boy.

Against Nottingham Forest, an English First Division Club that United played to a 1-1 tie in a "friendly," Adu played the entire game. Afterward, Nottingham coach Joe Kinnear noted his inconsistency, saying Adu "came and went," adding that "he's only a baby" in a grown-ups' game.

The reception Adu has received from fans, however, has been the stuff grown-ups dream of, and six months into his pro career, there has been enough progress on the field for Nowak to appear encouraged and for Adu to smile his brilliant smile.

Adu is pleased at being tapped for the league's All-Star Game tomorrow at RFK. This year's event is designed to personify the past, present and future of Major League Soccer. With that in mind, commissioner Don Garber chose Adu as a top prospect and veteran Jason Kreis, the league's all-time leading goal scorer, as his personal selections.

"It hadn't entered my mind that I'd get a freebie to the All-Star Game," Adu said. "But in the end, the fans voted [by buying tickets]. ... And people coming to see you play is exciting because, you know, you may not be the best, but one day you will be the best."

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Adu has a six-year contract that reportedly pays him a league-high $500,000 a season. So far, curious fans have turned out to see him at a level that appears to cover a couple of years of his salary.

In seven home games, United has averaged 18,116, better than the league home average by nearly 2,500. And when Adu and United hit the road, they average 8,179 above the league average of 15,910.

Paying his way

For example, the Dallas Burn averages 8,478 fans per game, but when Adu came to town, 13,833 showed up in the pouring rain. The Colorado Rapids average 17,240 at home, but when Adu played there in May, 31,443 turned out.

In eight road games, Adu has enticed 192,709 fans. "It's hard to say United and Adu because it's Adu they're coming to see," said an MLS spokesman.

"I think he has done a hell of a lot better than I thought he would," said United's team captain, Ryan Nelson. "He's a young man coming into a tough environment, and I think he's handled himself exceptionally well. ... Michael Jordan, people thought he'd do better in his first season, too, and he was 21."

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Nelson predicted that "it is going to take a couple years for him to gain consistency, and he has to understand that, too."

Adu, who has the same low center of gravity that the great Pele had, came into the MLS with raves about his skills, speed and quickness. He was viewed as a very mobile player who could finish plays and score goals.

Adu admits to feeling disappointed over not being able to do all he was able to do as an amateur. And he has been frustrated by his limited playing time.

A quick look around the league shows why. Another top rookie, Clint Dempsey, a midfielder/forward for New England, started 16 of 18 games before being sidelined with a broken jaw last weekend. Dempsey, 21, has played 1,447 minutes and scored six goals and has one assist.

Yet another top first-year player, Columbus defender Chad Marshall, has started 14 of his team's 16 games and produced one assist in piling up 1,260 minutes.

Late entrances

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Adu, who has played in every United game, has scored twice and has one assist. But he has only 764 minutes because he usually doesn't enter until midway through the second half.

A month or so ago, he voiced his irritation to the media. But afterward, he talked to Nowak and the two again agreed on the plan to bring him along slowly as he builds his strength.

"It's a bit of a challenge being a professional," Adu said. "You have to get used to going through the same routine every day. There are interviews, even when you're not playing well. Learning to handle myself is part of being a pro. Learning to be patient is part of it. And, sometimes, in a game, you get a little lost, get tired a little bit.

"My frustration comes from not playing a lot. I want to make a contribution in the game. [Against the Galaxy], I added a little more offense, a little spark and I think I'm getting [physically] stronger -- not as strong as I need and want to be, but stronger. And I feel like I'm getting in the right spots on the field. The last few games, I've played well.

"But I didn't expect it to be this tough."

Adu has not been overpowering. Because of his size, 5 feet 7 and about 140 pounds, he frequently is outmuscled and knocked down. United's goal is to build his strength to prevent injuries, and he does weight training at least twice a week with team members.

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"I don't think anyone on the team is disappointed with Freddy," said United defender Brandon Prideaux. "There's just so much to learn for a young player. And, strength-wise, it just takes time to get used to big, physical men."

Opposing coaches, scouts and journalists credit Adu with field vision and the ability to make skillful passes. But they note his lack of impact. The goals came when games were already decided, and brilliant passes are useless if no goals result.

Nowak draws a lot of grief -- sometimes from Adu, sometimes from the media -- for rationing Adu's minutes. Against the Galaxy, despite three starters being out of the lineup, Adu didn't come in until late.

Nowak said it had been a very physical game and he didn't want to lose Adu to injury.

"Watch the games," said Nowak. "On free kicks and corner kicks, our players trust him; trust him with the pressure of 20,000 people watching to make the right decisions. He's very mature. He's making progress fighting for people, covering for people, earning respect.

"He's still a young kid as everyone knows, but Freddy has done a great job in the last six months. He'll do even better in the next four. It's what we're working for. Everyone here wants to make him better."


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