Freddy Adu and his coach jokingly debated the pros and cons of rap music and the Bee Gees during their long walk to RFK Stadium after a particularly grueling practice.
The light moment wasn't what you'd expect from Peter Nowak, the supposedly strict, no-frills D.C. United coach who insists on bringing Adu along slowly, despite all the hype and sellout crowds for the phenom.
"He's my coach, but he's also a great guy that I just like to talk to and have fun with," the 14-year-old forward said. "That just makes me feel very comfortable."
Up close the 39-year-old Poland native is tough but fun, strict but full of personality, a constant stream of energy as he tackles his first coaching job under scrutiny unparalleled for a league soccer team in the United States.
"When it comes down to business ... you've got to do whatever he wants you to do," Adu said. "When you're off the field and over and done with, he's a very open guy. You can joke around with him. ... That's how I am, too."
Nowak has already rubbed some of the veterans the wrong way with his set of rules. Wake-up time is 8 a.m. on the road, where the team eats all its meals together. Players must arrive by 9:45 for the 10:30 practices at home, and they are no longer allowed to drive the several hundred yards from RFK to the practice field _ as they did in years past.
"We have to do everything together," midfielder Bobby Convey said. "There's not one thing that you do by yourself. If you try to do something by yourself, he thinks you're trying to be an individual, so he's all about the team. Sometimes it's too much, but I guess too much is better than not enough."
Midfielder Earnie Stewart said a dose of discipline was badly needed after two less stringent seasons under coach Ray Hudson. But Stewart also grew up playing for tough coaches in Europe, and he sees why an America-reared athlete might bristle at Nowak's egalitarian philosophy.
"The way they grow up over here is a little bit different," Stewart said. "The way it's being done is the way it's always been done for me, but you can see there are people that need adjusting to it."
But Nowak's approach just might be the perfect fit someone like Adu. Instead of favoritism, the star kid with the $500,000 salary and the $1 million Nike deal is getting daily lessons in the values of discipline, teamwork and camaraderie at an impressionable age.
"It helps us bond together a lot more," Adu said. "We get to spend a lot of time off the field with our teammates, and it helps the team. You get to know each other, and it translates on the field."
Nowak's style can frustrate anyone unfamiliar with soccer. Not a day goes by in which he isn't asked when Adu is going to start, yet Nowak keeps his poker face and sticks by an unwritten rule that says the starting lineup isn't announced until just before kickoff.
Nowak resisted the calls to start Adu in the first two games and has instead followed a standard plan for a promising rookie. Adu got his feet wet by playing a nervous 29 minutes as a second-half substitute in the opening victory against San Jose, then showed more confidence when he played the entire second half in last week's tie with Los Angeles.
Adu's first start is inevitable, although only Nowak knows if it will happen Saturday against MetroStars.
"Media and fans think he's going to come on and perform miracles," Nowak said. "Professional sports don't work this way. Freddy understands this. He's a very young man, and he has nerves and his ability. Of course he's going to get more minutes and more games every single week."
Nowak retired as a player only two years ago, and there are days when he looks as if he should still be in the lineup. After one spirited workout _ in which he scored off an assist from Adu _ Nowak jokingly proclaimed, "I was MVP."
Being on the field helps him learn more about his players. The trait he admires most? "Honesty."
"Honest work," Nowak said. "I believe not in publicity, talking. I believe in work, hard work. And that's what this team is starting to realize. It's going to be determined in the practices who's going to start. This is about fair competition. This is not about who I like and who I don't like."
For Adu, that means a coveted starting spot won't be his until it's absolutely earned.
"I don't necessarily have to agree with him," Adu said. "But you have to respect him because he's your coach, and he's trying to look out for the well-being of the team. All I can do is to work harder, practice and try to earn a starting spot."