24 Under 24: The education of New York's Juan Agudelo
UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – It was a conversation that happened earlier this month between New York Red Bulls teammates Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream and former Red Bull Jozy Altidore. But the impact may last a lifetime.
The US national team was preparing for a friendly match against Costa Rica and Ream, who has been a teammate of Agudelo with the Red Bulls for the past two seasons, wanted to see the 18-year-old forward produce the same fire and intensity with his MLS club as he did with the USMNT. The Red Bulls center back sensed that the young striker could give a lot more for New York.
So Ream asked Altidore, who moved to Europe after starting in MLS and has become an automatic selection for the USA, to have a talk with Agudelo about his training habits. Though he was now a regular call-up, Agudelo still wasn’t a consistent part of the Red Bulls starting XI and it was wearing on Ream.
“I think he was a little discouraged, not playing as much as he likes,” Ream said of Agudelo. “Going in with the national team, I noticed he definitely trains hard there. A couple guys, myself included, had a conversation with him just to let him know that you have to train just as hard here and you’re going to get your chances.”
The result has been evident for the Red Bulls. In his following MLS game after that talk, Agudelo entered after halftime and scored the equalizer for 10-man New York in a 1-1 result against Vancouver. Then in 1-0 road win against FC Dallas, he assisted on the game’s lone goal in an unselfish move on Luke Rodgers’ 36th-minute tally.
It is easy to forget the Agudelo is still just 18 years old but his meteoric rise — the forward has six goals this season mainly in super-sub appearances — has seen him become one of the league’s top young stars. While the attention may have already gotten to the heads of other players in his position, Agudelo credits his teammate and roommate Matt Kassel for keeping him on track.
“Every morning if I wake up a little late, my roommate wakes me up,” Agudelo said of Kassel, a fellow Red Bulls Academy product. "If I forget my keys, he helps me out. It’s good, I’m still learning."
Kassel says he spent a lot of time with Agudelo during preseason training and they decided to become roommates shortly after a team trip to Mexico. The two share an apartment in trendy Hoboken, N.J., right across the river from Manhattan. And with his family nearby — the Agudelo clan moved from Colombia to New Jersey when he was seven years old — there is a support network always nearby to help guide him.
Despite the glow of bright lights from other leagues, Agudelo realized his best place to develop into a star was in MLS.
Even though he burst onto the national scene last year, Agudelo was part of the heralded Under-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Fla. But when the cycle was over, he returned to New Jersey. There were offers out there, including from Europe and his native Colombia, but Agudelo saw MLS and the Red Bulls as the ideal place to learn and grow.
“Just [at] my age, I figure it’d be just safe to be here around home just in case I wasn’t comfortable [abroad],” Agudelo said. “I just figured it’d be good to be around family and stuff after training.”
The move has worked out and his play in MLS has quickly propelled him on the international level.
Ever since Bob Bradley called him up to his first camp last November, Agudelo has become a fixture on the US senior team and his new coach is in position to help him continue to develop his game. Before his days on the sidelines, manager Jurgen Klinsmann was one of the best forwards of his generation, including scoring in three straight World Cups.
“He’s good,” Agudelo said of the German icon. "He deals with his players well, he communicates well. You can relate to a lot of things he’s said and he’s gone through. It’s almost as if you have a teammate who is coaching you.”
Agudelo is soaking up all the teaching he receives on and off the field. Kassel, who is an MLS rookie but is four years older than Agudelo, has become a role model for the teen phenom, drawing on his three years of experience at the University of Maryland. Even if it is just helping Agudelo get up on time or finding the keys to the BMW he loves so much.
“He’s the dad of the house,” Agudelo said with a laugh.
Kassel leads the charge in the mornings to get ready and out the door for training.
“I’ve always got to help him out,” Kassel says. “He’s always asking me at night what time we’re leaving for training and I’m like, ‘Dude, we’ve been leaving at the same time every day for how long now?’ It’s all in good fun, but he’s really forgetful sometimes.
“But we’re both there for each other which in the end, is what you want from a friend and a roommate.”
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. Follow @KristianRDyer