In January, the MLS’s Real Salt Lake made national headlines for signing 14-year old Axel Kei from their academy to their senior squad as a homegrown player.
With the move, Kei becomes the youngest player in American professional sport’s history, 156 days younger than Freddy Adu when he signed with DC United in 2004.
Now, the name Freddy Adu evokes a cringe when spoken in US football circles. He represents dreams of finally achieving greatness on the world football stage, only to come crashing back down to mediocrity.
In honour of Kei’s historic signing, let’s take a look beyond Adu at 10 American wonderkids that showed loads of promise, yet for whatever reason, could not deliver.
10. Junior Flores
Flores flamed out harder than nearly all of these names. Flores showed promise in 2015 when he drastically improved over the course of the CONCACAF U20 Championship, but he never made another US appearance after that tournament.
A shame, considering much of his youth was with Borussia Dortmund’s academy. Like many other names on this list, he was an attacking midfielder that just couldn’t finish on the attack. Combine that lack of production with two large injury absences, including a knee injury in 2018 that forced him to retire at age 22, and you have a recipe for disappointment.
9. DeAndre Yedlin
A consistent member of the US backline, although Yedlin has accumulated 71 caps at 28 years of age, his club career has been somewhat lacking. A product of Seattle Sounders FC’s academy, he spent two seasons in Seattle before a move to Tottenham for £2.34m. He only touched the field once with Spurs, but a successful loan season that year to Sunderland allowed Tottenham to sell him to Newcastle that next summer at double what they paid for him.
From there, Yedlin remained a consistent part of the Magpies lineup. But as anyone who has watched the Tyneside club in the past five years can tell you, that lineup has not been particularly remarkable, especially the backline where he resides. After five middling years, Newcastle sold Yedlin to Turkish club Galatasaray SC, and a Newcastle run that should have been a stepping stone towards a bigger club was instead a walk off a cliff. For someone who was supposed to be a rock for the US national team, not many expected him to be completely out of work in 2022, but that’s where Yedlin stands right now.
8. Gedion Zelalem
Zelalem had all the hallmarks of a great future national team member. A member of Arsenal’s academy, receiving regular time with their U19 team, 10 appearances with the US U20 team after switching nationalities from Germany, it all seemed to be going so well. So where did it all go wrong?
Zelalem failed to produce offence wherever he went, notably only producing two goals and five assists with Arsenal’s U23 team. Arsenal finally offloaded him to Sporting Kansas City in the MLS in 2019, and after a season with their second team, was sent to New York City FC where he remains today. He’s only had eight appearances there, all of which came last season.
And as for his spot on the national team? Forget about it. Zelalem still has yet to receive a call to play first team football for the US, much like it took until 2019 for him to play first team football at the club level.
7. Joshua Gatt
A shame this young man was lost to injuries. He chose the European game over college soccer, but injuries caused Gatt’s promising career to stall out in Norway, as he was released from Molde after six seasons in 2017. He did manage to make 20 MLS appearances in 2017 for Colorado Rapids, but that was as far as he got before another unceremonious release. Stops in Switzerland and Ireland have now landed him in America’s second tier with USL Championship side Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. He remains with the squad today, so time will tell if the 30-year old winger can make it back to top flight football, even if his dreams of making the US national team attack are long past.
6. Rubio Rubin
In the post-Landon Donovan era of the mid-2010s, the US were desperate to find some striker, any striker to be their next starter. While they were lucky enough to hit a home run with Christian Pulisic, consider Rubio Rubin a swing and a miss.
Rubin found his place in the Netherlands with Utrecht at age 18, receiving the regular playing time the US U20 and U23 staff thought would help develop him, but he only managed three goals during his time there. He’s only recorded seven caps for the US since his debut and hasn’t made an appearance since the 2018 friendlies.
Rubin has bounced around between first and second tiers for a few years, but since transferring to Real Salt Lake in 2021, he has made 34 appearances, racked up eight goals and six assists, and even become an occasional starter. One of those goals was a bicycle kick against San Jose Earthquakes in May that was good enough to win MLS Goal of the Year. We’ve seen plenty of players make their name in the MLS after fizzling out elsewhere, and if his upward trajectory continues, Rubin could find his name on that list in time.
5. Emerson Hyndman
Back in 2015, US U20 manager Tab Ramos raved about Hyndman’s potential, saying, “Emerson has all the tools to be a 10-year national team player.” At this rate, he’ll be lucky to reach 10 caps.
Hyndman hasn’t cracked the national team squad since 2016, and the midfielder has only registered two caps to date. ESPN FC heralded him in 2015 as the top US player under 21 years of age, but since Jurgen Klinsmann’s departure from the managerial post, Hyndman hasn’t seen so much as a phone call from the Soccer Federation. From 2016 to 2019, he bounced around the UK, racking up appearances for Fulham, Rangers, Hibernian and Bournemouth.
However, not all hope is lost for Hyndman. A successful half-season loan stint in 2019 with Atlanta United FC turned into a permanent transfer to the MLS side at the start of 2020. Since the initial move, Hyndman has been an anchor in the midfield for the Five Stripes, happy to have the offence flow through his feet up to Atlanta’s famous attackers. An ACL tear in June 2021 has so far limited Hyndman to just 56 appearances for Atlanta, but should he come back close to his pre-injury form, he will have no problem continuing his upward trajectory at the club level. Maybe it will even translate into a call from Gregg Berhalter soon.
4. Cameron Carter-Vickers
Carter-Vickers showed great promise as a member of the US U20 team as just a 17-year old, but fast forward seven years later and the defender only has eight national team caps to show for it.
A Tottenham youth product, he technically remains a part of the north London side. Any Spurs fan would be forgiven for not recognising him as he has only made five appearances with the club, but has been loaned out seven times since 2016. A winding road through Sheffield United, Ipswich Town, Swansea, Stoke, Luton Town, and Bournemouth have led him to Celtic, where he now enjoys a regular spot in the starting XI.
With other defenders like Sergino Dest, Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman long surpassing Carter-Vickers in talent, it looks as if his days with the national team are already past him. Time will tell if the 24-year old can find his place with a major club.
3. Julian Green
How far we’ve come since heralding this Bayern Munich youngster as a future long-term midfield starter. He has scored with the senior national team, and on the big stage to boot, thanks to a goal off the bench in the Round of 16 against Belgium. Since then, the now 26-year old with four goals in his 15 US caps was transferred to 2.Bundesliga’s VfB Stuttgart in 2016, but made his way back to Germany’s top flight this past season with Greuther Furth. Green’s 30 appearances last campaign have now decreased to 11 so far after the promotion, and Furth sit dead last in the Bundesliga with little hope of staying up.
The US doesn’t have room for second-tier players in its squad, and it looks like that is the fate Green is doomed for after being such a promising youth.
2. Brek Shea
Coming up in America through IMG Academy and drafted to FC Dallas in 2008, Shea was supposed to be a cornerstone of the US midfield for many years. And after being bought by Stoke City in 2013 after five seasons in the Lone Star State, that dream appeared closer than ever. However, only three Premier League appearances, two loan spells to the Championship, and no goals and only one assist to show for it, he was sent back to America in 2015. Only 34 caps for the US national team reflected a talent that fell long short of expectations.
Shea currently plays for Inter Miami CF, where he occasionally starts for David Beckham’s side. He took a journeyman route to get there, however, playing for Orlando City SC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and Atlanta United FC as well since his MLS return in 2015, never lasting more than two seasons in one place.
1. Freddy Adu
If the US national team had a theme song, it would be “We Don’t Talk About Freddy.” Adu entered MLS with worlds of hype on his shoulders, nicknamed “The American Pelé” for his prolific and flashy attack and tabbed by US Soccer Federation as the cornerstone of their 2010 and 2014 World Cup teams. He was drafted #1 overall by DC United in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft at 14 years old, still the youngest age that a player has ever been drafted into the MLS.
After arriving in the nation’s capital, Adu put up respectable but not remarkable numbers in his three seasons with DC United. He made the MLS All-Star team twice in 2004 and 2006, but only scored 11 goals in 94 appearances. From there, Adu bounced around all over the world, with 13 different clubs playing hot potato with the consistently underperforming prospect. His most notable stretch of play came with Philadelphia Union in 2011 and 2012 when he scored 10 goals in 41 appearances during the club’s first two seasons in the league.
As for where Adu was during those 2010 and 2014 World Cups? In South Africa he was on the bench, and he watched the US’s run in Brazil from his couch. At age 32, he has currently been without a club since February 2021, after spending time with Osterlen FF in Sweden. Talk about a fall from grace.
Written by Andrew Simonson