The comparisons are inevitable.
In November 2003, 14-year-old Freddy Adu signed his first professional contract with MLS and D.C. United. In the years since, Adu's career has been held up as a cautionary tale of too much too soon, showing how being the face of a league set the stage for a career that never lived up to the hype. Now another 14-year-old is slated to turn pro and is doing so a few months younger than Adu was when he became a professional.
Late last month, Francis Jacobs signed a professional contract with USL Championship side Orange County SC, and it raises the usual questions. What's the rush? And what efforts are being made to make sure that Jacobs stays on track and doesn't end up going down the route of Adu and other talented teenagers before him?
- Freddy Adu exclusive: "I'm not ready to give up"
Much has changed in the U.S. soccer landscape since Adu made his debut with D.C. United during the 2004 season. The Development Academy was formed in 2007, resulting in academies sprouting up all over the U.S. and Canada, not just in MLS. The entire soccer ecosystem in the U.S. and Canada has considerably more experience in bringing along young pros. Alphonso Davies was 15 when he signed with the Vancouver Whitecaps and now finds himself on the books of Bayern Munich. Earlier this year, the Chicago Fire signed a 14-year-old in goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina.
- Major League Soccer Table
- Ibrahimovic blasts MLS playoffs system
- Carlisle: Why Rooney swapped D.C. for Derby
Orange County has some experience in this area as well. Last year, the club signed a 15-year-old goalkeeper, Aaron Cervantes. After nine league appearances with the club, Cervantes finds himself in the running to be named to the U.S. roster for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup this October. Given that experience, OCSC's President of Soccer Operations & General Manager, Oliver Wyss, is confident that Orange County will provide the right platform for Jacobs to grow.
"We have a very talented player that is now in a professional environment, that is allowed to go and develop," Wyss said of Jacobs. "He's allowed to make mistakes. He's allowed to be a teenager. But clearly there's a very talented player that we feel, in the structure that we've provided for him, will make a significant difference in the USL and beyond."
OCSC didn't arrive at the decision to sign Jacobs lightly. Manager Braeden Cloutier has been watching Jacobs for years and, in conjunction with Wyss and technical director Frans Hoek, the decision was made to invite Jacobs to train with the team in May. To their surprise, he wowed the OCSC staff with his ability on the ball. At 5-foot-11, he had the physical tools to compete.
"When he came into our environment, not only for the coaching staff but the players as well, to gain the respect of a lot of older players, it's not easy," said Cloutier. "For him to keep the ball, keep the ball moving, make the right decisions, don't turn the ball over, it caught all the players' eyes really quick. It caught our eyes too.
"I've known him for a long time, but I think we were all like, 'Wow, he's well ahead of definitely a lot of kids.'"
Jacobs estimated that it took him two weeks to adapt to the speed of play.
"I was pretty nervous, but once the practice started, it was just a regular practice," Jacobs said of his first sessions with the team. "I was pretty excited to get started and play with them. The pace of play is way faster because these guys are pros, and it's a lot of movement off the ball, which is way faster too."
After Jacobs proved himself over the course of a few months, he accepted an offer -- a "standard professional contract," according to Wyss -- from the club. The teenager has had training stints with FC Koln in 2016 and Bayer Leverkusen in 2017 but the chance to stay near his home in Laguna Beach, Calif. carried the day. There are safety nets in place so Jacobs will be able to play for his youth club, Irvine Strikers, should he need more minutes.
"Taking him out of his nest was not the right move at this point," said Jacobs' father, Jeff, an attorney. "What OCSC has offered couldn't be any better. We live very close by. Francis' life will stay intact in terms of friends and normalcy."
It helped that Jacobs' mother, Cindy, has a Ph.D. in education and has been home-schooling Francis for the past year. For the upcoming school year, Jacobs will be training with his team in the mornings and attending classes in the afternoon at a local private school, with extra training and video sessions with Crettenand at the club four days a week.
"I think after he was out there for two weeks and he had adjusted to the movement and the play of the ball with it pinging all over the place, it was as though from my vantage point, 'Wow, this is what he should be doing regularly," Jeff Jacobs said. "But that's my own thought. It was also, 'What does he want?' and it seems like a natural fit."
The entire OCSC staff doesn't want to throw Jacobs into the deep end. OCSC's Under-23 coach, Didier Crettenand, has been assigned to act as Jacobs' "big brother," breaking down video with the player and helping him navigate his first months as a pro. Former U.S. international Michael Orozco has taken it upon himself to give Jacobs advice during training, too.
"When you watch [Orozco] in practice you notice how good he really is," said Jacobs. "He points out little details that not a lot of people would see in a game. It's really helpful. He's a defender too so from a defensive standpoint, he's showing me how to use your body and not your hands."
Cloutier is also mindful of the age difference between Jacobs and his teammates and how that can manifest itself in the locker room and not just on the field.
"Jacobs is still 14 years old, and there are things said and done in locker rooms that a 14-year-old doesn't need to hear," Cloutier said. "So we're protecting him when it comes to that kind of stuff. He has his kit, so he comes to practice already changed. He comes down when we do video sessions with the team. He's only a little bit involved with the locker room [atmosphere]."
You can already sense some conflicting impulses when it comes to deciding when Jacobs should make his professional debut. Wyss said Jacobs is available for selection and could see the field as soon as this weekend against the Las Vegas Lights (Saturday, Aug. 17, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN+).
Cloutier is more hesitant. OCSC is in 14th place in the 18-team Western Conference but three points out of a playoff spot, so he has to think of the bigger picture. He's also mindful of giving Jacobs his debut at the right time. He noted that the defensive side of the ball is where Jacobs has the most room to grow.
"The last thing I want to do is put him in a situation where if this backfires and doesn't go well, then it's like taking two or three steps backwards," Cloutier said. "I just want to make sure we're doing this at the right pace and the right time."
Jacobs, who also holds a British passport thanks to his mother, whose family moved to England from South Africa in the 1980s, is eager to take that next step but like a grizzled veteran, he knows it's not his call.
Wyss said, "It was clear that Jacobs has all the tools, that if developed correctly, he can be a great professional -- not only for us but to go beyond."
Even though Jacobs has surpassed Adu in terms of his long-held age record in American soccer, he's still got a long way to go before he and OCSC can say he's passed the pitfalls that claimed Freddy all those years ago.