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Young Soccer Stars
By Michael Lewis

Pele
The world's greatest soccer player: Pele.
(Photo: Photo: Mirrorpix/NewsCom)
June 26, 2007

Real Salt Lake midfielder Freddy Adu began his professional career as a 14-year-old. Forward Jozy Altidore virtually carried the New York Red Bulls into the playoffs with a late-season scoring burst last year—as a 16-year-old.

Will these players fulfill their promise and potential, become flops or enjoy solid pro careers?

Only time will tell.

A number of young players, such as former D.C. United star Bobby Convey, who plays with Fulham (England) and a member of the U.S. National Team started as a teenager and have enjoyed productive professional careers.

Here are profiles of eight teens—from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean—who started young:

The greatest

Of course, the most famous is Pelé, who, as a 17-year-old, scored six goals for Brazil en route to its first World Cup title in 1958. Even in cyberspace, it would be difficult to list his many accomplishments. His short list includes three World Cup titles, 1,280 career goals and he is credited with starting the soccer boom in the United States a generation ago. He is the world's greatest player—no argument at all.

The greatest, part II?

The comparisons with Pelé are obvious. Ronaldo was 17 years old when he sat the bench for Brazil during its successful 1994 World Cup campaign. Though he is a different type of player, he has emerged as one of the great scoring machines of his day, filling the net for some of the best clubs in the world—Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain and Inter Milan and A.C. Milan in Italy. He was a flop at France '98, particularly in the championship game, but bounced back to lead Brazil to the title by connecting for a tournament-best eight goals in 2002. He also is the World Cup's all-time goal-scorer (15 goals).

Hat-trick Patrick

At the age of 18, Patrick Kluivert seemingly had everything. He played a key role for Ajax in the 1995 European Cup Final, but was involved in a tragic car accident later that year which killed a woman. He was sentenced to 240 hours of community service, and many soccer observers felt he never reached his potential. Kluivert has played for A.C. Milan, Barcelona, Newcastle United, Valencia and PSV Eindhoven. Kluivert was a bust at France '98. Yes, he did score for the Netherlands against Argentina in a 2-1 quarterfinal victory, but he seemed to lead all strikers in misses. Now 31, Kluivert is without a team for next season.

Tales from the Whiteside

Many people don't know that Northern Ireland native Norman Whiteside is the youngest player to play in a World Cup, beating out Pel&eaacute; (he was 17 years, 41 days old). Much was expected of Whiteside, who turned into one of soccer's hard men and accrued more than his share of red cards in his day, while playing for Manchester United. He retired early, before the age of 26 due to knee injuries (13 operations).

Ryan's hope

When Ryan Giggs first broke in as a 17-year-old with Manchester United in 1991—scoring in only his second appearance—manager Alex Ferguson was so concerned about the youngster having so much so soon, that he banned all media talking to him. Giggs, 33, eventually was allowed to talk to the press, and he's emerged as one of the key players for United (98 goals in 504 games as a winger), performing on the 1999 Champions League champions, and the Welsh National Team. However, due to his age, Giggs is likely to play in a World Cup.

Some Owen goals from Michael

As an 18-year-old, Michael Owen scored one of the greatest World Cup goals for England, weaving through the Argentine defense similar to Diego Maradona. Owens did not rest on his laurels, filling the net for Liverpool, Real Madrid and currently Newcastle United and the English National Team as well (37 goals in 82 appearances, fourth on the all-time list, and an excellent strike rate). Now 27, Owen has been hampered by knee injuries in recent years, but he is ready to assert himself again.

The great Canadian hope

Probably the best example of a teen-age player breaking in on this side of the ocean was Branko Segota, who, as a 17-year-old helped the New York Arrows to the first of four consecutive Major Indoor Soccer League crowns, starting in 1979. He went on to star for the Rochester Lancers in the North American Soccer League, being named rookie of the year by the Professional Soccer Reporters Association, and played with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. He also performed for Canada in the 1986 World Cup. But the folding of the NASL in the '80s forced Segota to play indoor soccer for most of his career and squander his many talents.

Miro Rys

Back when American players performing for pro teams as teenagers was unheard of, Miro Rys turned out to be a pioneer, playing for the Chicago Sting (North American Soccer League) while still attending high school in 1976. As an 18-year-old Rys was the bread-winner of his family because his father had been laid off from work. He scored four times in 17 games that season and added two goals in as many games with the Los Angeles Aztecs the next. He scored a goal for the U.S. National Team in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Canada on Oct. 20, 1976. He signed to play with Hertha Berlin, but the world would never know what Rys could have accomplished. He died in a car crash in Germany.