The Throw-In: Juan Agudelo's incredible third act may be his best performance yet
The standard set-up for a three-act play goes like this:
In Act 1, we meet the main character. Toward the end of the opening act, there are hints of drama ahead.
In Act 2, the main character encounters an obstacle that tests him. Here, he often endures the lowest point of his narrative.
Act 3 is where the dramatic climax occurs, where (usually) the protagonist prevails over his obstacle and finds a happy ending.
Like a guy who knows good drama when he sees it, New England Revolution head coach Jay Heaps has been watching Juan Agudelo carefully ever since the Colombian-born striker burst onto the scene three years ago as a New York Red Bulls Homegrown signing.
That first act saw Agudelo provide tantalizing promise for New York as a teenager. But he never really won over former coach Hans Backe, who preferred experience over precociousness despite Agudelo’s instant heroics with the US national team.
In the middle act, Agudelo’s magic seemed to run out. His teams’ failures seemed to match his as he couldn’t help the US U-23s qualify for the Olympics and struggled to find a consistent spot as Chivas USA burned through two head coaches.
But Heaps watched with admiration, silently wishing he could one day get a crack at coaching the young phenom. Thanks to a serendipitous turn of events, he got his wish. And Heaps is getting a chance as stage director in the early stages of a third act that has Agudelo on the cusp of fulfilling the star potential fans have clamored for.
In three games with his new team, Agudelo has completely transformed the New England attack. They’ve averaged three goals per game since the former Chivas man arrived, including Sunday’s 5-0 shellacking of the LA Galaxy. Prior to his arrival? The Revs had averaged .6 goals per 90 over 10 games. That’s not an accident.
Yes, other things have come together for New England: Saer Sene’s return from injury, for instance. And the rise to prominence of Diego Fagundez, whose back story closely mirrors that of Agudelo’s. But even Heaps agrees: Agudelo seems to be tailor-made for his 4-1-4-1 system with shifting offensive responsibilities.
“He can play three different positions for us immediately,” Heaps tells MLSsoccer.com, citing both flanks as well as the center forward spot, where he lined up against LA before dropping left when Jerry Bengtson came off the bench in the second half. “His tactical awareness was almost instantaneous. He knows when to make a run, he knows when to make a pass.”
Agudelo’s two goals are the contributions that show up on the score sheet, of course. But as Heaps notes, there’s so much more the 20-year-old has brought to the table.
WATCH: Fagundez finishes 1-2 from Rowe
For instance, Heaps points out, it was Agudelo who helped create Fagundez’s 87th-minute goal against LA by taking a touch and actually moving away from goal, dribbling down the left flank at pace and bringing the rest of the team into the final third before feeding Fagundez, who played a nifty one-two with Kelyn Rowe before finishing himself (see video at right).
It’s no accident that Fagundez has scored goals in each of the Revs’ last three games, either – all while Agudelo was in the final third with him opening up space.
“There’s an understanding between the two,” Heaps said. “They understand each others’ movement. ... The way they see the game and understand the game, that kind of soccer intellect isn’t what you’re used to from younger kids like that.”
Agudelo’s soccer acumen has never been in question – that was one of the aspects of his game that everyone appreciated when he first debuted three-and-a-half years ago. And it’s why he won instant faith from Bob Bradley and some very early infatuation from Jurgen Klinsmann.
But the conflict of his Act 2 – disappearing into near-anonymity at Chivas USA, dealing with a serious knee injury and nearly being discarded by fans onto the scrap heap of once promising US youths who failed to deliver – may have made him a better player.
“I’ve noticed how quickly he’s fit in with the group,” Heaps says. “In the locker room, on the pitch, away from the game. How he plays, everything he does – he does it for the team.”
Act 3 has started promisingly. If the plot twists include Agudelo leading the Revolution back to the playoffs for the first time in four years – and perhaps eventually earning a recall for himself to the USMNT – this could be one of the best dramas in MLS this year.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.