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Adu Once Again Finds International Form, Can He Translate It Into Success With The Union?

Feb 29, 2012; Frisco, TX, USA; United States forward Freddy Adu (7) dribbles against Mexico at FC Dallas Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
Feb 29, 2012; Frisco, TX, USA; United States forward Freddy Adu (7) dribbles against Mexico at FC Dallas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Repetition is a forte for American's great soccer hope.

International fixtures are the lifeline for the 22-year-old's professional career no matter what his club form is like at the time.

Around every two years, it seems, Freddy Adu reappears in the consciousness of American soccer fans - and sometimes sports fans in general - putting on the United States Men's National Team's (USMNT) jersey and running out onto the pitch to compete.

Adu has not settled with a club since leaving D.C. United in 2006. The midfielder spent a year or less with the first teams of Real Salt Lake, Benfica and four teams (AS Monaco, Belenenses, Aris, Çaykur Rizespor) on loan from the Portuguese club before landing with the Philadelphia Union in 2011 after the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF).

A gutsy display against Mexico in the Gold Cup final showed that Adu could still tap into the wealth of potential that made Pele repeatedly speak highly of the former no. 1 overall SuperDraft selection.

"It's like Mozart," Pele once said of Adu. "Mozart started when he was five years old. If you are good, you are good. God gave Freddy the gift to play. If he is prepared mentally and physically, nobody will stop him."

Unfortunately the mental and physical aspects of Adu's play are exactly what have held him back. Amid rumors of being older than what is on his birth certificate, Adu has grown little since joining MLS at 14 and has added little muscle to what is still a slender frame in eight years of professional soccer.

The potential laden Adu was knocked around in MLS's physical play for years without any indication that he could handle being a slender, 5-foot, 8-inch midfielder in a professional world. Couple his physical limitations with the perception of being a spoiled, pompous player for his public rant against then-United head coach Piotr Nowak, Pele looked like he had finally made a correct soccer prediction.

It was his Gold Cup performance, receiving caps in the semi-final and the final game, that catapulted Adu back into the good graces of American supporters and enabled him to negotiate a tidy salary with MLS. Adu also showed that he had - possibly - figured out how to fulfill Pele's prophecy with his ability to fight off larger defenders and control his emotions during the CONCACAF tournament.

However an ankle injury derailed what looked to be a promising return to MLS, forcing Adu to play less than 100 percent during his first half season with the Union. Adu looked much more his Benfica self than the creative midfielder that helped to give the USMNT a chance at reclaiming the regional title.

A surprisingly strong run with the USMNT under-23 Olympic Qualifying squad has certainly changed the approach of questioning Adu's future role with the Union.

The battle for the team's playmaker was firmly between Roger Torres and Michael Farfan, despite both failing to make much of their playing time during the Union's first three games of the 2012 MLS regular season.

An in-form Adu has the opportunity to quickly reintegrate himself back into Philadelphia's starting lineup, especially since his teammates are struggling to provide anything resembling linking play to the Union's forwards.

However, Adu's impact on the Union this season may rest solely upon his ability to either expand his no. 7 role (think Cristiano Ronaldo on Manchester United, starting wide right and cutting in toward the center), move forward to a false no. 9 (playing behind the main striker in order to make runs off of him and facilitate play from the midfield forward) or move back into what has long been believed to be his natural central attacking midfielder role.

Converting to a winger who cuts inside toward the box gave Adu the opportunity to assist USMNT under-23 teammates Terrance Boyd and Joe Corona on the last two of the US' three goals against El Salvador last night. The position is still an unconvincing one for Adu despite his goal and three assists in his three starts during Olympic Qualifying.

The problem for Adu with the Union has been fitting into Nowak's tactical system in Philadelphia. In the last six months his role has mutated on multiple occasions, sometimes playing out of the center of the field but for the most part playing outside on the right.

Part of that situation comes down to the personnel differences of the under-23 national team and the Union.

The under-23 USMNT has players like Brek Shea and Joe Gyau to play opposite of Adu and Terrance Boyd to wrek havoc in the middle. The midfield consisted of Joe Corona, who was exceptional in the US' rout of Cuba and good in the draw to El Salvador, and players such as the Union's own Amobi Okugo.

Other than the Canada loss the midfield was able to control the run of play and help to create chances for those in front of them, or at least put them into position to make opportunities. Much of that has to do with the 4-3-3 style formation utilized by the under-23 team, which allows for open spacing for wingers to create, create and create some more.

Nowak's tweaking with the Union has led to an awkward 4-4-2 at narrow JELD-WEN in Portland, a Barcelona-esque 3-4-1-2 and most recently a 3-5-2. None of those formations place the emphasis on wingers that allowed Adu so much freedom with the under-23s, which is where concern comes into play for his return to Philadelphia.

Since becoming the Union's first ever head coach, Nowak has shied away from open, attacking play, instead favoring formations that allowed for two defensive midfielders or heavily fortified defenses.

Success with Adu can be had, but only if Nowak puts his players in a position to play positively. Farfan was superb on the outside of the midfield in 2011, playing well enough to garner a Rookie of the Year nomination.

Trying to influence the game centrally is not Farfan's strong point, but it is for either Adu or Torres, who for some reason played very wide against the Chicago Fire. Getting width play, which only Keon Daniel provided against the Fire, is necessary to opening up lanes for forwards to make runs and also helps to allow the midfield to link play more easily.

A lack of width has stifled the Union offensively and too often forces them onto their heals defensively during opposing counter attacks. Even if Adu had the game of his life it'd be wasted in the current state of Nowak's tactical decisions.

Without a change tactically it will be much of the same for Adu outside of the international soccer world.