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Upper Deck is Banking on Young Soccer Star Adu

by Paul Angilly
March 16, 2004

Once again, Upper Deck is banking on the star power of a uniquely talented individual to help promote a new trading card set -- and this time the individual in question is all of 14 years old.

That young player is Major League Soccerís Freddy Adu, who signed a multi-year deal with the league late last year and was selected by D.C United as the first overall pick of the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. Born on June 2, 1989, Adu is expected to become the youngest player in modern professional team sports in this country when the United host the defending MLS Cup champion San Jose Earthquakes in the leagueís opening game of the season, live on ABC at 4 p.m. on April 3.

Regarded by many soccer experts as the best young player in the world, Adu will be prominently featured as Upper Deck resurrects its line of MLS trading cards for the 2004 season.

The new set was announced earlier this month in a statement posted on both the Upper Deck and MLS official web sites. Upper Deck had previously issued sets for MLS in 1999 and 2000 and had combined with a company called Bandai to issue a smaller set in 1997.

MLS reportedly has entered into an exclusive multi-year deal with Upper Deck, with the 2004 edition to be released in June. The 90-card set will include game-worn soccer uniform and autographed card inserts. In addition to Aduís official rookie card, the young phenom will also be featured on at least one of the uniform memorabilia cards.

Born in Ghana, Adu arrived in the USA at the age of 8 after his mother won an immigration lottery. His family then settled in the Washington D.C. area. In February 2003, he received his U.S. citizenship. Adu joined the U.S. U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. in January of 2002. He played with the U.S. U-17 National Team in 2003 and helped the side qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Adu is continuing his education at the Edison Learning Center in Bradenton, where he will earn his high school diploma in May, 2004, at the conclusion of an accelerated three-year program.

Given Aduís expected star power, the new set isnít surprising. The popularity of Tiger Woods helped Upper Deck launch its golf card sets in 2001, and the popularity of Annika Sorenstam helped breathe fresh life into those golf sets when the company included LPGA stars in its issues last year (an LPGA-only boxed set is also planned for this year).

The company has a history of making soccer cards that dates back to 1993, when it made a series of sets featuring players participating in the 1994 World Cup, held in the USA.

MLS was formed in 1996, and that year Bandai created a series of 10 Starting Lineup-style plastic figurines (one player for every team), with an Upper Deck card included for each. The two companies combined to issue a 50-card set in packs for 1997, with the only inserts being a gold foil-bordered parallel card in each pack.

Upper Deck issued its first full-scale MLS set with all the bells and whistles in 1999. In addition to a 110-card base set, there were a variety of inserts: 24 MLS Stars (one per pack), 11 All-MLS Team (1:4 packs), seven World Stars (1:8 packs) and 19 Sign of the Times autographed cards (1:35 packs).

In another classic example of Upper Deck striking while the ironís hot, its 110-card 2000 MLS set included a subset of eight U.S. Womenís National Team cards -- on the heels of the mania surrounding that teamís 1999 Womenís World Cup championship. Issued as inserts with the set were: 21 Soccer Spotlight (one per pack), 11 All-MLS Team (1:8 packs), 10 World Stars (1:18 packs), 23 Sign of the Times autographed cards (1:35 packs), 10 Upper Deck Game Jersey cards (each numbered to 250) and two Game Jersey Autographs (numbered to the playerís jersey number).

Upper Deck didnít make any MLS (or WUSA) cards over the past three seasons, switching instead to making sets featuring the famed English Premier League team Manchester United. At least two different Manchester United sets have been released each year.

Bowman Back for 16th Year: First re-introduced to modern card collectors in 1989, the Bowman brand baseball card set from Topps will return in 2004 for its 16th straight season -- leaving it and the Upper Deck base brand tied as the second-longest continuous-running brands in card history, behind only the Topps base brand (54 years and counting).

For those unfamiliar with the history, the Bowman Gum Company first produced trading cards in 1948 and continued through 1955. Topps began competing with Bowman in the baseball card market in 1951. By 1956 Topps had bought out Bowman, leaving itself as the only major card manufacturer for many years.

In 1989, Topps re-introduced the Bowman brand as an early example of a retro-themed set. Designed similarly to the original 1953 Bowman cards, the 1989 issue was slightly larger than standard size (although still narrower than the 1953 cards). Collectors have never warmed up to oversized cards, though, and in 1990 (and ever since) the cards became standard-sized. The set evolved into a premium brand in 1992 and has become popular as the "home of the rookie card" ever since.

This yearís issue, due out in mid-May, will include a 330-card base set -- with 145 veterans, 20 prospects and 165 "first year players," most being recently-drafted minor leaguers. There will also be autographed and relic variations of select base cards. Some of those relic variation cards will include pieces of jerseys worn during high school all-star games, which Topps is touting as an industry first.

Several other autographed and relic insert cards will also be available, with Topps promising two autographs or relic cards per hobby box (four in each special Home Team Advantage boxes).

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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