American Exports: Juan Agudelo energized by first start with FC Utrecht as European adventure begins
AMSTERDAM – Rubber legs and all, FC Utrecht newcomer Juan Agudelo managed to keep his motor revving until the final whistle of Sunday's home draw with Eredivisie champs Ajax.
It may have been 87 days since his last full shift in New England's MLS Cup playoffs ouster to Sporting KC, but the 21-year-old Stoke City loan forward was sparked by his surroundings.
Eager to show dedication to the Utrecht cause, Agudelo found extra energy reserves in the waning moments of his first European start – which just so happened to be his home debut against a league-leading, title-defending rival that arrived on an eight-game win streak and recently notched a win against Barcelona.
"I tried to sprint and my calves were cramping, but I was being pushed by my teammates to finish the game," a visibly exhausted Agudelo told MLSsoccer.com after helping the Galgenwaard crew snap a four-game losing slide.
"It was a fun game. It was my first 90 minutes since November, but I think I was able to work through it and get the fitness I need to go forward."
Agudelo did a little bit of everything one would expect from a forward, aside from actually going for goal. He stretched those rusty legs on a handful of long dribbles, found teammates with positive passes, notched a few track-back tackles and even drew some introductory nods of approval from the home faithful for a couple slick maneuvers on the ball.
Most notably, Agudelo did very well handling long balls, with one of his aerial flicks setting up Steve De Ridder for the Utrecht equalizer. All told, those in attendance on Sunday afternoon were generally in agreement that the new forward had given an encouraging account without firing a single shot. Skipper Jens Toornstra told reporters the American was "an absolute addition" to the team for the stretch drive.
Agudelo was a tired but happy young man, perhaps even weighed down by his sense of relief at getting back to the actual game. It was tough leaving MLS and a raise with the Revolution behind, but his plan always involved try his luck overseas.
"It was just hard to give up on a dream that I had as a kid," he said. "Maybe something could have worked out with MLS, but for the most part I wanted to try and come over here."
If it sounds like enough of a dream day to make anybody jealous, do remember that long wait for the Utrecht start. Less than two weeks after his last Revs game, Agudelo had a pre-contract signed with Premier League battlers Stoke City thrown into turmoil when his work permit appeal was rejected by the UK Home Office.
"It was a little bit difficult, but everything is a process," shrugged Agudelo, wearing the weary smile of a guy who'd reached the light at the end of a tunnel.
Though most observers assumed the denial meant Agudelo went back to being a free agent, FIFA statutes do not allow for pre-deals to be cancelled by the lack of a work permit. Unable to re-apply, Stoke did not give up, quietly sneaking around the continent to offer the youngster on loan for the rest of the season.
After officially going on the club's books on January 1 to start the same four-and-a-half-year pre-deal he inked last summer, he spent 15 days training with the Potters.
As the weeks passed with twists and turns, the wait became a lot more than time to endure. Belgian leaders Standard Liège looked ready to snap up Agudelo in early January, but leading scorer Michy Batshuayi opted to stay instead of making an Everton move. While that was going on, interested party FC Twente went another direction, grabbing a young striker out of Norway.
Finally, two weeks ago, Utrecht took advantage of the plot twists to borrow Agudelo for the rest of the season. Having discussed the Eredivisie with former AZ Alkmaar ace Jozy Altidore before signing, Agudelo arrived with a clear map for this Dutch detour.
Playing in a league known for developing young strikers, Agudelo wants to find his way back to Stoke with enough goals and growth to make that next work-permit fight a cinch. It could also help him rejoin the US national team and possibly even make the World Cup squad this summer.
"Jozy said I will get my chances here," recalled Agudelo, whose next test will come when FC Zwolle visit on Thursday night. "He said I just have to keep myself close to goal and work hard.
"I want to work on the runs that I make [while with Utrecht], creating more chances by getting on the end of things. And tactically, becoming more mentally aware."
Of course, first he will probably want to dunk those tired legs in the hydro-bath for a while.