Football's forgotten superstar
Remember Freddy Adu? Of course you do. In 2004, he was the 14-year-old who was seen as the future of the game in the United States and a potential new global star. The subject of gargantuan hype when he made his Major League Soccer bow in April of that year for DC United, Adu still holds records as the youngest player and goalscorer in the MLS's short history and is also the youngest player to appear for the senior US team.
The chances are you caught more than a fleeting glimpse of Adu in those early days. His name was everywhere on the internet, as were highlights of his goalscoring exploits for DC and for the US in Fifa youth tournaments. On the pitch, he was raw but also fast and skilful - off it, he was commercial gold and a $1m sponsorship deal with Nike was among several endorsement deals that swiftly followed.
Five years on, it is an awful lot harder to see him in action, unless you fancy a replay of those YouTube clips. Cruelly dubbed 'Freddy Adieu' by some, Adu has had a frustrating time since moving to Europe two years ago but, as I found out, any shortcomings he might have as a player are not the only reasons why his career has stalled.
Adu has not had much to celebrate since moving to Portugal in 2007
Adu is now 20, an age where most players are just starting to make a name for themselves. Conversely, his biggest problem is that he has been famous since he was a boy and, whatever your thoughts are on his ability, that reputation - not to mention marketability - has arguably hindered his development more than helped it.
In 2006, all seemed well. Adu made his senior international debut at the age of 16, coming on as a substitute for the US against Canada in January, and, despite rumours of a fall-out with DC coach Peter Nowak over his best position and his lack of application in training, the attacking midfielder played in all 32 of their league matches before featuring in the MLS All-Star game for the best individual performers that season.
By the end of that year, he had a brief spell training with Manchester United before, perhaps surprisingly, joining another MLS franchise, Real Salt Lake City. The following summer, he turned 18, allowing him to make his dream move to Europe and join Portuguese giants Benfica for around £1m. Sadly for Adu, this is where his career began to unravel.
He played just 129 minutes of league football for Benfica in 2007/08, with his only two starts for the club coming in cup games, and was loaned to French side Monaco for 2008/09 - again, he hardly featured, except from off the bench. This summer, he asked for another loan move and almost joined Danish side Odense before moving across Lisbon to Belenenses, a club that are perhaps a bit like Adu - a big name but have had a few lean years.
It was at this point that I tried to track Adu down. I know I'm not the only one interested in his progress, or lack of it - at the last count his Twitter account had more than 135,000 followers - and it was through one of his Tweets that I found out my interview request had been successful.
Not that I managed to speak to him. Instead, I received a fax of two sides of neatly-written A4 paper containing the answers to the questions I had emailed his club. Not ideal, as normally it is difficult to grasp the character of a player without talking to him. However, in Adu's case, two things still shine through - optimism and determination.
He needs those qualities too. Adu's move to Belenenses has brought him more frustration rather than the game-time which he craved. Although this season has seen him make his first league start since moving to Europe, when he faced Nacional on 12 October, he has only made two other substitute appearances and, of late, he has struggled to even make their 18-man match-day squad even though his new club are third-bottom of Liga Sagres with just one win all season.
This, clearly, was not part of the plan. As Adu told me last week, he joined Beleneses "because I needed to be on a team that gave me the best chance of playing consistently and because it gives me the best chance of making the US team for next summer's World Cup. I can make the World Cup team if I play regularly here and well."
Adu made his senior US debut against Canada at the age of 16
Therein lies the problem - it's not that Adu is playing badly, simply that he doesn't play often enough. The finals in South Africa are only eight months away and he won't earn a place on the plane by sitting on the bench. So what has gone wrong? American players have struggled to make an impact in Europe before but why is Adu having such a tough time in relatively modest surroundings?
"I'm not sure why," he said. "How any player does depends on your team and the league you are playing on. The Portguese style fits my game because it is about technique and is not too overly physical. But some players thrive under certain coaches and some don't because of the way they are used.
"Every team I go to kind of expects me to be a superstar and dominate but I am very young and still learning. I guess that's what comes of having a big name when you are young."
It's not all bad news. Adu told me he has no problems speaking or understanding Portuguese and most of the time he has his mother, Emelia, to keep him company in Lisbon. Then there is Twitter - his very own online support network, where he is in touch with old US-team-mates like Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley and Stuart Holden, not to mention his thousands of fans.
Adu, who was born in Ghana but moved to the US at the age of eight when Emelia won an immigration lottery, explained: "My mother is still the biggest influence on my career because she knows me best and always gives me the best advice when things are going well and when things are not going well - she always points me in the right direction. And my fans on Twitter are great. They always keep me positive no matter what. Those are true fans and I appreciate them so much."
If only more people had looked out for Adu, he might not be in his current predicament. Could, or should, the MLS have nurtured him better rather than effectively using him as a marketing tool? He certainly brought new levels of interest to the game in the States, but I struggle to see how any of that attention truly benefited Adu's career, other than financially.
It is ironic that, at the same time Adu - the one-time 'saviour' of US Soccer - left the US in 2007, David Beckham arrived on those shores to become the new face of the game in the States. The timing was a coincidence but the current thinking from those promoting the MLS seems to be that there is no point trying to develop your own superstar when you can just ship in a ready-made one.
As for Adu's next move? Well, it is too late to give him what he should have received - tutelage at an academy of one of Europe's biggest clubs where he could have quietly had the schooling his undoubted talents deserved. What he needs now is time on the field, and to perform well when he gets it.
Adu trained with Manchester United at the end of 2006
That looks unlikely to happen at Benfica, where he is under contract until 2012, but he will have to be careful when speaking to prospective suitors. I'm told that the reason Monaco signed him was that their French-American president Jerome de Bontin spotted a marketing opportunity but the club's manager Ricardo did not want him - and used him accordingly. A move back to the MLS might help but Adu is not ready to give up on his European adventure just yet, and could even end up on these shores.
"I LOVE-E-E the Premier League," Adu told me. "Playing in England is my ultimate goal. My favourite players are Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and Steven Gerrard. Everything I'm doing now and have been doing is to prepare myself for the Premier League. If it were up to me, I would be playing there now but there are work permit issues."
Regardless of where Adu ends up next, it is surely too early to write him off. His recent displays against players his own age at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup and Beijing Olympics in 2008, where he scored four goals in three games, suggest he still has plenty to offer.
What he needs more than anything is a club where he is appreciated - if there were such a thing as a Twitter FC, it would be ideal.