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Much Adu about lack of playing time

WashPost: D.C. United star thinks he need more on-field time, but coach thinks otherwise
File photo of DC United soccer star Freddy Adu in action during an MLS league game
Freddy Adu has started just twice in six matches and scored one goal this year for D.C. United.Gary Hershorn / Reuters file
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Unbeknown to sports fans who barely care everywhere, D.C. United is in the throes of upheaval. This is serious business beyond the soccer-mom set, and no more than the future of American futbol is at stake.

Well, that's what some of Freddy Adu's peeps say.

They believe their boy is not playing 90 minutes a game because a stubby tyrant who grew up in Communist Poland and plied his trade in the do-as-you're-told German system does not understand how to handle the talent of a golden child. Peter Nowak, said stubby tyrant, says he has a method to his madness. He is parceling Adu's minutes like war-time rations because his job is to keep the MLS Cup, which United won last season in its first year under its Napoleonic coach.

If a 15-year-old, sometimes-mopey Rockville kid is always appeased, "I will lose the locker room," Nowak said. "I will lose the 27 [other] guys."

Either way, fans of an oft-rejected sport in this country must cheer such a dilemma. This isn't Beckham or Britain. Who knew a U.S. player would ever have peeps?

Freddy's minions claim Nowak is an overbearing bully, unfairly picking on the kid. Nowak knows it's impossible to build a team around an adolescent because of the ups and downs, the periods of inconsistency.

If he plays Freddy an entire match and he struggles, he will be criticized for throwing the kid to the wolves. If he plays him sparingly, Nowak is halting the progress of perhaps the most gifted attacking player this nation will ever call its own.

It's Anger-Management Man versus Wallowing Wunderkind, season two. "Desperate Housewives" meets "24" on the pitch. Passion. Intrigue. Smelly toes. Conspiracy, literally, afoot.

"In my mind, it's not a matter of right and wrong," said Trevor Moawad, Freddy's mental-conditioning coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., who is very worried about Freddy's state of mind. "It's a matter of philosophy. The question is, what philosophy is best for the team and what philosophy is best for Freddy and his development?"

Translation: Whack Nowak or trade Freddy to a place he might actually play, such as New York, where some of his IMG teenage brethren are starting and thriving.

Moawad is so worried, he lined up a bevy of IMG clients to speak on Freddy's behalf, including gold medalist track star Michael Johnson, who met with Nowak in the offseason.

"I was quite shocked to hear he is worried about the type of clothes Freddy wears when he does interviews," Johnson said. "I said, 'Is he violating team rules?' He said no. 'Well, you got to pick your battles with Freddy,' I said. I like Peter, but you wonder why he makes such a big deal out of these things."

Before Freddy's peeps got the spin-cycle running, the original idea for this column was to check-in on Freddy a year after he became the youngest professional team sports athlete in a century at age 14. Fourteen months into his career with United, the idea was to see if the kid whose nimble feet flicker like bat wings was enjoying his second year of work. Did the rigors of MLS beat hanging out in a high school cafeteria and sticking a plastic fork into your friend's milk carton, until every compartment of his lunch tray is flooded and overflowing with Vitamins A and D? (What? You didn't do that?)

On Tuesday afternoon a visit to the practice fields a few hundred yards from RFK Stadium illustrated Freddy's trials. He promptly got poked in the eye during a scrimmage and dropped to the field in agony. His team, once comfortably ahead 5-1, ended up losing a short-field shootout, 7-5. He and his teammates had to run. And run. And run.

Disgusted by the loss, Freddy chucked his yellow nylon mesh practice jersey after his last sprint. Then his coach called him over to instruct him on how to protect the ball with a defender on his back. He said nothing to Nowak. Freddy looked miserable on a cold, drizzling day in the District. He looked like he needed a hot lunch.

Freddy said he has not had a substantive conversation with Nowak in almost two weeks, since Nowak went off on him verbally in front of the team after a 1-0 loss to New England on May 14. Freddy, the first substitute pulled from the match, won't go into detail. He will not even speak about what happened or what was said.

"I just listen and keep to myself," he said after practice Tuesday. "It's sad. It's not supposed to be that way. But he's the coach and you've got to deal with the decisions he makes. I'm not one to complain about playing time. I did that last year and I learned from my mistake."

He has assisted on three of the team's last six goals and scored one of them. Last weekend he intercepted a ball at midfield, took off on a long run, drew the defense and beautifully dumped off an assist for the game-clinching goal against Kansas City. Freddy plays his last game in perhaps a month for United this Saturday at RFK against Dallas. Afterward, Freddy is off to play for the U.S. under-20 national team at the world youth championship in the Netherlands for a few weeks.

"This whole Freddy thing is uncharted territory," said United veteran midfielder Ben Olsen. "It's a thin line between winning and developing young talent. Do you play the veterans or do you develop the young guy? I think Freddy and Peter are both doing the best job they can, given the circumstances."

Speaking to a number of people "close" to Freddy the past couple of days was as disturbing as speaking to a young NBA player's "friends." Their concern was genuine and, in some cases, well-founded. But many of the complaints were about minutes, about telling Freddy what he wants to hear instead of what he needs to hear.

So here's a suggestion: Eliminate the middlemen, the peeps. When the pupil and the teacher butt heads in school, when the teenager is not talking to the adult that embarrassed him in front of the class, it is usually settled one way: parent-teacher conference.

Emelia Adu, Freddy's sensible, well-meaning mother, should sit down with Nowak and work this out -- no matter how much it mortifies Freddy. Nowak needs to bend, too, to make sure he is not obsessively hard on Freddy because he wants to assure United's other players that the kid is not getting preferential treatment. Not every young player has to be broken down before he is built back up.

This proposed meeting should happen soon, because next Thursday is Freddy's 16th birthday. In Montgomery County, that means he can get his license a month later. Freddy can drive himself to practice. "That'll be a great day," he said. "My mom won't have to take me anymore."

A license and a ride is almost heaven at 16. But Freddy knows: It cannot beat getting off the bench.