By Kevin Koczwara
Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber both found themselves looking at a return to the United States after their careers in Europe stagnated. Adu was surplus to requirements at Benfica after failing to make an impression either on loan or in camp with the team. Feilhaber wanted out of Denmark and nobody worth his time seemed interested. So, to Major League Soccer they went with hopes and dreams of rekindling their careers in the country they represent. But, they found themselves looking at two very different prospects when they crossed the Atlantic.
Adu reconnected with his first coach Peter Nowak, who coached Adu when he was the-star-to-be-at-just-14 and signing with D.C. United. Things would be different this time. Nowak was in charge of a team (as it’s manager, not its coach) in its sophomore year in the league, the Philadelphia Union, while fighting the sophomore slump, and fighting for a playoff spot in the east. Nowak and the Union had a solid, well-built team grounded in his approach, not so different than his time in D.C. The real change was in Adu.
No longer is he a little boy in a big man’s world. No longer is he the hot-shot. Now, Adu is the boy who has failed to live up to the hype. He looks the same — still boyish with a smart smile — but no longer is he the king of American soccer. His time in Europe was nothing short of a bust. He didn’t break through at Benfica and didn’t impress in France, Greece, Portugal or Turkey while on loan. He came home to Major League Soccer, where he got his start. He couldn’t have found a better team. Or a better time.
The Union are fighting for a playoff spot. The Union are a team on the rise with its own stadium, and an avid fanbase that cares. It’s a team with plenty of youngsters looking to break through — last year’s first pick in the MLS Super Draft Danny Mwanga, 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer– a strong collection of veterans — Sebestian Le Toux leading the attack, Danny Califf marshaling the defense, and Colombian international Faryd Mondragón in goal.
Carlos Ruiz was looking for an exit from Philadelphia, and Nowak needed to find someone to replace his goal output. In a move to bring more creativity to the side and to free up Le Toux from the shackles of being a playmaker, the Union signed Adu to fill that void. And it looks like it could take a few games for Adu to breakout for the Union and be the kind of player the team needs as it looks to grow and continue an upward swing — he is just 22 and still has the kind of skills that made him a standout at a boyish 14. But it’s time for Adu to show the viewing public that his time in Europe matured his game and his approach. Once a boy with the golden boots, he is now a man looking to star a career anew. If this move doesn’t pan out, who will take the chance on him next? Will there be a next? The situation in Philadelphia brings him back to his boyhood coach, if this doesn’t work, then nothing can. It’s a perfect situation for a young man trying to make best of all the promise.
On the other end of the spectrum is Feilhaber. The American International had a successful spell in Denmark with AGF Aarhus, but he needed to move out of the Danish first division to get more playing time and to challenge himself. So, he decided to try his hand in MLS for the first time. It looked like Feilhaber was set to go to Chivas USA, who had the first allocation pick, but Chivas and Philadelphia both passed on the midfielder, making way for the New England Revolution to snap him up. Things were looking up for both the Revolution and Feilhaber.
The Revolution had a promising start to the season. It looked like the team’s defense was figured out, and all that was missing was that fulcrum piece in the midfield and in the attack to create chances. Feilhaber can be that kind of player. But things haven’t worked out.
The Revolution’s defense went to bits when the team released left back Seth Sinovic with no real cover — Didier Domi doesn’t count as he barely saw the field at Gillette because of injuries, which lead to his release. Injuries have crushed the back line, but more importantly, the Revolution haven’t found the right mix, yet.
When Feilhaber arrived, New England was without a goalscorer. It didn’t have the kind of player twho can create and finish chances. It didn’t have a traditional No. 9. The team looks to have found that with the signing of Miltion Caraglio, the Revs’ first Designated Player in team history. Now, if the team can solidify its defense and incorporate Feilhaber’s skill on the ball in the midfield and use Shalrie Joseph’s strengths — winning the ball back, passing out of the midfield, and link play — then things should click, which they have for periods of games.
The Revolution have scored first in five of its last six games, but the team has been unable to hold on to the lead in any of the games. Feilhaber and the Revs look a team lost, searching for its identity. The frustration can be seen when Feilhaber looks around for someone to pick him up after being knocked to the ground and fouled — he is the most fouled player in the league. No one is there because the Revolution seem lost in a dessert, looking for their own singular identities rather than an identity for the team as a whole. Is this an attack minded team? A ball possession kind of team? Is this a sit back and counter type team? What formation will be rolled out this time?
Things have not gone perfect to plan for Feilhaber. He has yet to be recalled to the U.S. National Team since Jurgen Klinsmann was named the coach of the USMNT, despite having plenty of playing time. And with Jose Torres looking like he’s claimed the role of midfield passer and creator, Feilhaber will struggle to find time in Klinsmann’s team, especially if the Revolution continue to struggle.
Adu hasn’t received the call either. If he and Feilhaber want to get back in the USMNT picture, they need to pick up the weight and move their team’s in respected fashion, by creating chances, by being leaders who have travelled and played on bigger stages. They need to step up their games and show how USMNT players play and dust off the cobwebs. They’ll have a chance to knock around one another on Wednesday when their team’s meet at PPL Park in Philadelphia, one day after Klinsmann’s USMNT loses to Belgium, 1-0. And if they are on top of the their game, the coach will notice because both their careers are in crunch-time. And he is still trying to figure out the confusing National Team puzzle.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.