Monday, July 30, 2007

Freddie Adieu

I took a vote and elected major league soccer the worst managed team sport in North America. That thought comes with news that Freddy Adu, late of Salt Lake and DC United, is negotiating to play for Binfica in Portugal.

That whole Freddy Adu episode made no sense to me; but then, soccer itself makes no sense to me. Adu was the latest attempts by soccer club owners to ignite more interest in the game by the American audience. Instead of setting an audience foundation, soccer takes short-cuts and is surprised when they get a house of cards.

In an earlier day, the sport lured Pele (Edson Arantes do Nascimento) to play for the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Pele was arguably the greatest futbol player ever. Playing in the NASL's most important franchise in the country's largest city did not grow the paying audience enough to save the league. Make that to save the league from its own excess.

Importing foreign stars to play a foreign game here is not a formula for success. Those who are already fubol fans appreciate seeing players from other countries who they've heard of, but the audience soccer was try to build, Americans with disposable incomes, yawned. Bringing in bigger names at higher salaries did little to raise revenue. The NASL folded for that reason in 1985.

Fast forward to 2004 when Major League Soccer, the latest attempt to build a soccer audience, takes another short cut by signing 14 year old phenom Freddie Adu to the most lucrative contract in the league. Fourteen, and he's paid more than any adult player; more than any coach, as though one man-child could win team-oriented game. There is an economic term for paying a price far beyond its value: stupidity.

The problem with signing Adu is that teens grow at different rates. Adu was head and shoulders ahead of any player his age, but not good enough to start on a team of men. DC United did not need him to win championships. The fans who bought the hype and paid to see Freddie, wondered who all those other guys were on the field - while the boy was on the bench. We don't know yet whether Adu will remain head and shoulders ahead of his peers when he and they reach adulthood.

Rather than take such a risk, wouldn't MLS have been better served by seeding school and AAU programs to grow a generation of stars and audience who are culturally invested in the sport, as Americans are invested in football, baseball and basketball? That's the long, slow way to grow, but a much firmer foundation than shortcuts with the star system, using stars unfamiliar to the American audience.

You want stars? How about luring athletes like Deion Saunders and Michael Jordan to the sport. Their play would be inferior to pro soccer players, no doubt, but they have a following and would draw more audience and coverage than imported stars. What do you really know about Beckham? That his name figured in a movie (Bend It Like Beckham); that he has a hot wife, and that you probably won't pay more than once to see him play.

The money the MLS invested in Adu was not well spent. By all accounts, Freddy is a good, decent, talented kid who was a lot smarter to take the money than the MLS was to offer it. So adieu, Freddie Adu. Best wishes for your career in Portugal, where futbol is part of the fabric of life. You are where you need to be: set for life and gone from the idiots running American soccer.

Now, leave me alone to enjoy football American style.


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