The 22-year-old striker’s ambitious European plans never materialized, but Juan Agudelo is back with the U.S. national team and determined to make a strong impression.
April 15, 2015
SAN ANTONIO—Juan Agudelo’s eyes reflect the journey soccer has taken him on. Pupils that once sparkled with impish glee and the natural confidence of the supremely gifted are now calm and seem to reflect deep thought.
Euphoria and enthusiasm have been replaced by wisdom and patience, the kind of knowledge usually only learned at the School of Hard Knocks, an institution with an open enrollment and a low graduation rate.
Still just 22, Agudelo is looking to jump-start a once supremely promising career that has seen him go from would-be savior to clubless castaway while still younger than most current rookies in Major League Soccer. He has returned to the New England Revolution and showed enough through six games of the MLS season to earn a return to the United States national team after more than a year away.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot, all I’ve been through,” Agudelo said. He speaks with a quiet confidence that shows little sign of the young up-and-comer whose confidence and smile were once part of a nationally run commercial for a prominent sporting goods company that is also an MLS sponsor. “One of the things I’ve learned is not to take things for granted. I’m very happy to have another chance with the national team.”
It’s been four-and-a-half years since Agudelo debuted with a bang for the senior team. As a 17-year-old, six days before becoming old enough to vote, he got on the end of a Mix Diskerud pass and scored the game-winning goal in a friendly against South Africa late in 2010.
National team greatness seemed inevitable then and he seemed well on his way to it in 2011. He drew a penalty against Chile in the national team’s annual January camp and scored the tying goal against Lionel Messi and Argentina in a friendly that March. That summer he was part of a U.S. side that reached the Gold Cup final in 2011, a tournament that proved to mark the end of Bob Bradley’s reign as national team coach.
All told he played 14 games for the U.S. in 2011. He’s played for the national time three time since, the last coming in a friendly against Ukraine more than a year ago.
“It’s good to be back. When you’re younger you might not understand what you have,” Agudelo said. “But I think I appreciate it more after everything I went through and being away for a while.”
Part of the reason the call-ups stopped coming was an unsettled club situation. In 2011 Agudelo scored a dozen goals for the Red Bulls, which had signed him to a homegrown deal in March of the previous year. But with New York wanting to go with veteran players to surround French icon Thierry Henry and the club fearing he’d bolt for Europe the first chance he got, Red Bull jettisoned Agudelo to Chivas USA early in 2012.
There he battled injuries, poor form, and the malaise that sometimes comes from playing for a bad club. He managed just three goals in 24 games in 2012. Injuries shelved him early in 2013 but once healthy he was one of Chivas’ few bright lights, scoring twice in six games before a mid-season trade to the Revolution that came months before he’d be out of contract.
With New England he rediscovered his form, scoring seven goals in 14 games and helping the team return to the playoffs. By then, he’d signed a pre-contract with English Premier League team Stoke City and when the Revolution season ended he crossed the Atlantic.
Except, he never qualified for a work permit in England. Because the national team call-ups had dried up after 2011, Agudelo didn’t have near enough caps to meet the 75 percent threshold needed for foreigners (without a European Union passport) to qualify for a work permit and he was never able to play for Stoke.
While they tried, to no avail, to appeal, Stoke loaned him to Dutch side Utrecht and Agudelo scored three times in 14 games. But with his appeals denied, his Stoke contract was terminated and Agudelo began looking for another club in Europe. Any club.
Only the suitors never came.
“Very frustrating, yes” was all he would say about it. The 2014 World Cup came and went, and Agudelo was stuck in soccer purgatory. With no acceptable offer he rejoined New England this winter.
The aforementioned commercial featured Agudelo and fellow would-be young guns Teal Bunbury (now an Agudelo teammate in New England after a series of injuries) and Brek Shea, who also went on to have a short-lived stay at Stoke and is now back in MLS with Orlando. At the time, they seemed like the future of American soccer.
“Yeah, we’ve been through a lot, the three of us,” said Shea, who has recast himself as a left back. “Teal with his injuries and Juan and me with our… experiences in England. We’ve all learned a lot since then.”
Agudelo agrees. “Yeah, we talk about it,” he said. “We’ve definitely been through a lot.”
He seems to take satisfaction in having earned this recall with a solid showing in his second stint with the Revolution. “I feel like I’ve gotten off to a good start with my club and it’s good to get recognized for that,” he said.
New England dropped its first two games but is unbeaten in four straight and with national team stalwart Jermaine Jones recovered from surgery and making his season debut last week, the Revs appear poised to live up to their preseason favorite status. “We’re putting things together,” Agudelo said. ”We didn’t have the start we wanted but we have a lot of talent and we’re getting healthy, getting Jermaine back so things should go better. It’s a really good group to be a part of.”
As for the Mexico game, Agudelo’s status is unknown but he’s hopeful to have a chance to play alongside the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, who debuted with the U.S. earlier this year.
“I haven’t played with him or against him and watched him and he opens up a lot of space with his speed,” Agudelo said.
With most of the regular forwards out because of injury, suspension, or European club obligations, Agudelo is actually the second-most experienced forward in camp (after Chris Wondolowski) despite only having three caps the past three-plus years.
“I definitely know I’ve been out of the pool for a while, and I want to do my best,” Agudelo said. “If it goes well, it goes well. And if it doesn’t, hopefully I get another shot down the line.”
Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter