By FRANCO PANIZO
HOUSTON, Texas – Freddy Adu won't take it for granted. Not anymore.
After a near two-year hiatus, Adu made his return to the U.S. men's national team as second-half substitute in its Gold Cup semifinals match against Panama on Wednesday night at Reliant Stadium. It was the first time since a Gold Cup group stage match against Honduras on July 8, 2009 that Adu had played for the United States, and a moment he had long waited and worked hard for.
"I haven't stepped on the field for the national team in two years," said Adu. "To get a chance to be out there, I was very happy and fortunate and I just wanted to reward the coach's faith in me."
He accomplished that and maybe more as he helped create the lone goal in a tight contest against a Panamanian team that had been denying the Americans any clear looks on goals with physical and disciplined defending.
11 minutes after stepping onto the field and following a play in which the U.S. team played the ball well out of its back, Adu received a pass near midfield before unleashing a picture-perfect through ball that found fellow substitute Landon Donovan on the right flank in the 77th minute. Donovan took a couple of touches and then unleashed a driven cross that Clint Dempsey tapped home from close range.
Just like that, the Americans were looking at a place in the finals. And just like that, Adu had made an impact during a time when many questioned his inclusion on the U.S. roster.
""From the start of this camp, Freddy's made progress and so the opportunity tonight was earned on his part," said head coach Bob Bradley. "You could see him getting sharper. You could see confidence coming back. We had him on the bench the other day (versus Jamaica) with the thought that he could come in at a certain point and help. I thought the timing for tonight worked and again he was a nice part of the play that led to the goal and it's important for him. He's earned his way. He earned this opportunity."
Bradley also pointed out during his post-game press conference that Adu is a more mature player and person than he was a couple years ago, as he entered this summer's camp with a more professional approach. Bradley also gave respect to one of Adu's most recent decisions.
"When you see a player that goes to the second division in Turkey to keep things going in his career, that tells you something," said Bradley. "You can tell that when he got a chance in this camp, he appreciated it. He certainly had, when I say he's matured, it shows in the way he comes in, in the way he acts, in the way he trains, he knows what's expected.
"I said it earlier, actually I didn't say this part: He didn't start out this camp great. There were days early on where regaining confidence, the speed sometimes in training, there were a lot of days that didn't go great. But you could see over time that it was starting to get better and better and we feel like when we have a chance to have our group together for three weeks, four weeks, that you see this, and that's a good sign."
Adu's teammates said similar things after the game, with Donovan even saying that Bradley "certainly stuck his neck out by bringing him here and Freddy wants to reward him."
That mission was accomplished, and Adu's message after the game was clear: he truly appreciated and enjoyed being back in the national team picture, having been forced to watch for nearly two years as he tried to sort things out at the club level.
"In a lot of different ways I took it for granted before," said Adu. "When you haven't been here for a while and you get a chance to be here, you really appreciate just being around the guys and just being on a national team and just knowing you really have to earn it, you really do. But once you get in, you have to keep working hard and keep getting better to get a chance to play."
Adu made it count when he got his chance, and although he didn't score the goal or deliver the assist, his role in the play that led up to Dempsey's finish was equally as important.
That's not to say that Adu is ready for a starting spot already. But it's also not to say that teammates like Tim Howard don't appreciate what the small but gifted attacker brings to the table.
"I love Freddy, I'm a fan of Freddy," said Howard. "He's a different type of player. He brings things to the team that not a lot of players can do. He's got God-given ability that can't be taught. Tonight was an example of that. He played unselfishly, passed the ball, the weight of his passes are crisp and clean, the right weight, and he can take people on. He's very good.
"I was glad to see him back. He's been eager, he's been chomping at the bit, he's been patient, he's been humble. It was good to see him put in a performance like that because it's important for us – it's important for him, but important for us."
As good as he is, Adu was one of the more questioned selections when Bradley announced his roster for the Gold Cup. But Bradley saw it was a reward for Adu's hard work, and although Adu didn't know whether or not he'd play, he was ready to seize the moment if it ever came.
"Mentally, you always have to be prepared because you never know when you're going to be thrown in," said Adu. "It's been a long road back to actually playing for the national team again, and you really have to be prepared if you get that chance to be out on the field. You want to be here, you want to represent your country. This is a level that you want to play at."
Adu won't take take the national team for granted. Not anymore.