Freddy Adu jokes that when he signed his first professional soccer contract at the age of 14, he was impatient for adulthood. Now 30, he openly wishes for time to slow down.
But some things remain the same for Adu. He still has that deft touch on passes, as he demonstrated recently at Bachman Sports Complex in Glen Burnie. He pushes and prods while clapping his hands, providing criticism and support at the same time. And he never lost that trademark ear-to-ear smile that nearly matches the setting sun.
But Adu was not performing inside crowd-filled stadiums against opponents from the Champions League or Major League Soccer. Instead, he was setting up members of an under-13 team associated with Next Level Soccer, an organization based in Anne Arundel County.
“It’s crazy because now I know how some of my coaches were feeling about some of my performances on the field and in training,” he said with a laugh.
Born in Ghana and raised in Rockville, Adu was anointed “the next Pelé.” He became the youngest athlete to sign a major professional contract in the United States (with MLS’ D.C. United) and was destined to take American soccer to the stratosphere of soccer-crazed nations such as Brazil, England and Italy. But among the NLS Ajax’s 50 to 60 boys and girls taking shots and playing defense at Bachman, he is simply “Freddy.”
“There are so many opportunities, but to know that you could get advice from a pro, that’s very helpful,” said Gerardo Osorio, who will be a freshman at High Point High School in Beltsville this fall.
Adu’s path to joining Next Level Soccer was paved by his friendship with Rafik Kechrid and Dan Bulls, the president and vice president of the organization. Friends since their time as students at UMBC, Kechrid and Bulls began Next Level Soccer in 2014 to train prospective players. A year later, the organization began fielding club teams.
Bulls credits Kechrid with staying in touch with Adu, who still lives in Rockville, to get him to consider coaching. Kechrid said he reached out to what makes Adu tick.
“The game is the game, and football is football,” Kechrid said. “He’s still in love with the game although he wasn’t playing at that time, and I think that just helped him show up.”
Adu, who first showed up for a practice in December 2017, was a not-too-familiar face to the players. But Kevin Quincin’s father instantly recognized Adu and showed his son a video of Adu’s previous plays.
“I thought he was really good,” said Quincin, who will be an eighth grader at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi. “I was thinking, ‘Why did he stop playing?’ ”
After opening his career with D.C. United for three seasons, including a trial run with English Premier League powerhouse Manchester United, Adu was traded to Real Salt Lake, where he appeared in 11 games. He then spent time overseas, playing for clubs in Portugal, France, Greece and Turkey from 2007 to 2011. He returned to MLS to play three seasons with the Philadelphia Union, but headed overseas again to compete for seven franchises in Europe and South America.
Adu eventually came back to the U.S. for stints with the North American Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies and the United Soccer League’s Las Vegas Lights, playing 14 games in 2018.
Adu said he has discussed his triumphs and troubles with the youth players.
“When I’m out here, I tell them, ‘Hey, I’ve played here, I’ve played in the Champions League, I went pro when I was only 14,’ ” he said. “I’ve been there, I’ve done all of that, but I also made a lot of mistakes, and those mistakes have led me right now where at first every team wants you, but now it’s a little bit harder to even latch onto a team because of mistakes. They catch up to you.
"You don’t want to be in that situation. That’s what I try to instill in them.”
But Adu insisted he can wear the fabled No. 10 jersey that is usually reserved for a team’s top playmaker.
“I’ve been out training and doing bicycle kicks and stuff like that,” he said. “I’ve got no problems doing all of that. The guys that I grew up with, the guys that are the same age as me are still playing. Guys like [U.S. men’s national team star] Jozy Altidore still play at a high level. So just because, say, I’ve been in and out, in and out, people are like, ‘Oh, maybe he’s done.’ I’m not done. Not even close.”
Until he gets another opportunity, Adu is content with coaching his young charges. At Bachman, he alternated between chiding the players for not being focused and praising the players for putting shots on the net. After one drill, he counseled a player to follow through on a kick when shooting to avoid floating the ball over the goal.
Olivie Diaz, a soon-to-be eighth grader at Southern Middle School in Lothian, said Adu helped him hone his finishing skills.
“I was rushing the ball a lot,” Diaz said. “He would talk to me and say, ‘Just place it, and you’ll make it impossible [for the goalie] to stop.’ ”
Joking that the players practice better to make an impression on Adu, Bulls turned serious.
"The impact that he’s had in such a short amount of time has been incredible,” said Bulls, who has known Adu since he was 12 and Adu was 10. “You can see it when they show up to the field. They carry themselves differently. They carry themselves like a pro. I have to give so much credit to Freddy. He’s such a natural coach.”
Both Bulls and Kechrid said the one thing that infuriates Adu is a player lazily going through the motions. Adu said his frustration is internally driven.
“For me, I always got away with my talent,” he said. “But once the level gets higher and higher and higher, talent is just not enough. So I want them to work hard and I want them to have good habits because if you have good habits, it’s just something that’s going to propel you to the next level much smoother than when you’re into bad habits and you’re trying to get out of those bad habits. That’s why I do get on them sometimes.”
Adu said his top priority is latching on with a professional franchise. But he did not rule out coaching in the future.
“I haven’t really thought about that because I still hold quote-unquote dreams of still playing,” he said. “So I haven’t really thought beyond that. I’m just kind of thinking about the now. So yeah, that’s something I would obviously look into because I do get a lot of satisfaction from it.”
Judging by the players’ enthusiasm when Adu is around, they would be sad to see him go. But Daniel Ramirez, who will be a seventh grader at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, said Adu is worthy of another opportunity.
“If he put his mind to it and trained every day, I have faith he would be able to play again,” Ramirez said. “He’s that good.”