Much Adu About Nothing

By Jason MenardFormer soccer wunderkind Freddy Adu signed yesterday with the Philadelphia Union, marking his return to professional soccer on North American soil. And the fact that this story was relegated to afterthought status on noted sports Web site SI.com reveals everything you need to know about the sad state of soccer on this side of the Atlantic.

Six years ago, Adu debuted for the United States’ national team playing an international friendly for the squad against Canada. At the time, Adu was supposed to be the future of North American soccer. The truth is that he is — only not in the way everyone thought that future would play out.

Adu’s ascendance to the upper echelon of soccer’s club ranks was supposed to herald the arrival of a new era in North American soccer. He signed his first professional contract at age 14 — a feat usually reserved for football prodigies from Europe and South America. His face was plastered all over the pages of newspapers’ sports sections and magazines everywhere. Ghanian-born, he was to be the first American to truly make an impact on the international scene.

That was 2004. His every move was carefully scrutinized and his progression was eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, his game never lived up to the hype and Adu now finds himself back in MLS after a four-year sojourn overseas, where he never amounted to much more than a bit player on the game’s greatest stage.

Adu was supposed to be North American soccer’s version of Wayne Gretzky. He was supposed to launch the sport into the national consciousness in much the same manner that Babe Ruth’s exploits made baseball America’s game. It was a lot of responsibility to place on one young man’s shoulders and, in fairness, no matter what he did on the pitch it likely would not have been enough.

Fast-forward to 2011 and North American soccer still is looking for the Adu it expected. MLS is an afterthought in our collective sporting consciousness. Forget approaching the rarified air occupied by NFL, NBA, and MLB — soccer has yet to even crack the echelon of regionally strong leagues like the NHL.

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. MLS has tried to stimulate interest by bringing celebrity athletes overseas. The David Beckham experiment was overall a failure in Los Angeles and the arrival of Thierry Henri in the Big Apple as part of the New York Red Bulls squad hasn’t translated into over-the-fold coverage of this league.

Yet MLS has so much going for it. North America, a continent populated almost exclusively by immigrants, has strong soccer roots — unfortunately, those roots are tethered to fans’ Motherlands. Come World Cup time, flags representing countries like Brazil, Italy, and Portugal are omnipresent. A significant portion of our population still follows teams in leagues like the EPL, the Italian Serie A, and La Liga in Spain. But that attachment has yet to transfer to Canada or the U.S. — even for second and third-generation fans.

I’m not a soccer fan, but I have had the pleasure of attending a number of games at BMO Field in Toronto. The atmosphere is electric and the passion for the game is contagious. Soccer, in many ways, is like hockey — a game best enjoyed in person. But while hockey is a part of our national consciousness, soccer hasn’t developed that sort of traction.

And this is despite the fact that soccer is the most popular sport in terms of youth participation. Unfortunately, for many, that’s where the game begins and ends on this side of the Atlantic.

That’s why MLS needs someone to assume the role that was handed to Adu over half a decade ago. Canadian and American youth need to see an elite player born in North America. They need to find someone who will blaze that trail, put posters on the walls of youth everywhere, and show that soccer can be a viable alternative to our more traditional sports.

Until kids can watch a player and imagine themselves filling their cleats in the same way that they currently can imagine being the next Sidney Crosby or LeBron James, then professional soccer in North America will remain much Adu about nothing.

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