The Throw-In: Back off Agudelo before it's too late
I have a confession to make. Like you, I pumped my fist and cheered when Juan Agudelo scored the equalizer for the US against Argentina last weekend.
But then I smacked my hand against my forehead and thought, “Dear God, no.”
Four days later, I saw Agudelo’s name in Bob Bradley’s starting lineup against Paraguay in Nashville, and my heart sunk further into my chest.
It’s not that I’m not rooting for the kid. I am. With all my heart. He does things that get you out of your chair and make you scream. It’s not even so much the goal-scoring (which, bizarrely, he’s now done more of for his national team than he has for his club). It’s how he uses his body off the ball, how he moves into space and knows he can be just as effective without charging on goal, how he understands he must get back on defense and chip in.
No, I’m more anxious about this kid than perhaps any young attacker in a US jersey, ever. Because every time he has a highlight moment on national TV, I can hear the hype meter pushing 11. I can see the machine starting to churn, hurrying him to a place where he may not be ready to go. I can read on Twitter and Bigsoccer the joyously misguided claims that this kid is it – the next great American striker.
[inline_node:332385]And I start to worry. Why haven’t we learned?
This is a tale that we’ve seen over and over again, every time some young stud comes down the pipe and tantalizes fans with some nifty footwork or a timely goal. The hunger for an American star, a homegrown hero who can put the ball in the net, is almost as old as fandom itself in this country.
Over and over again, we’ve overhyped every single promising prospect who has come along and buried them with expectations and rushed them into the mix too fast.
Landon Donovan. DaMarcus Beasley. Bobby Convey. Freddy Adu. Eddie Johnson. Jozy Altidore. All of them at one point or another were hailed as the rocket to stardom for US soccer, heroes who would break out onto the world stage. And say what you will about any of them – none has become the American Maradona.
It’s got to stop now, with this kid, before we damage him. And we’re all to be held accountable here – the US Soccer Federation, Red Bull New York, Major League Soccer, the fans and, especially, us in the media. (We're even guilty of it right here in this space.)
The speed at which Agudelo is making things happen is one of the reasons everyone is so excited. We all understand that. But this is perhaps the most worrying part of it all. No player in US history has experienced all these things in such a short amount of time.
Agudelo signed his first pro contract exactly one year ago. He made his first start in an MLS Cup Playoffs game against San Jose seven months later. He earned his first senior US national-team cap a month after that in South Africa, and scored his first USMNT goal before ever scoring for his club team. Then, last Saturday, his second international goal against one of the best teams in the world; on Tuesday, his first start for the US.
“At this rate,” tweeted one US fan, whose thoughts were echoed ad nausea, “question is who will pair with Agudelo, not Jozy.”
That mentality makes my skin crawl. The last thing we need to do is make an 18-year-old believe we’re counting on him this soon. We all need to slow down the bus. But don’t just take my word for it.
“When you’re hot, you’re hot,” former New England and US striker Taylor Twellman told me in a phone conversation on Wednesday. “That’s fine. But to go from zero to 100, my main question is, have we not learned anything? Is our goal for someone to score six goals in the Gold Cup? Or is our goal to find a goal-scorer in the World Cup? That’s ultimately the thing.”
If Agudelo keeps progressing at his current rate, it’s not a matter of if he will become a go-to guy for the US – it’s a matter of when. By 2014, he’ll be just entering his prime years of top physical condition and ability, and it’s not out of the question to believe he’ll be a big difference-maker in Brazil. He has the physical and technical skills, and by all accounts, his attitude is right.
But now is not the time to heap expectations on him. It’s not the time to hope he’ll score goals that will beat Mexico in a high-stakes final. Now is the time to make sure he has the right head on his shoulders to be put through the machine, to have the right attitude so that he continues to stay hungry. And that he doesn’t squander what we all believe is vast potential.
[inline_node:332419]That’s where the real challenge lies, says US legend Brian McBride.
“It comes down to whether a player is mentally ready for it,” the retired striker told me earlier this week. “If he is, go for it – throw him into the deep end.
"If he’s not, this is where his supporting staff, his friends and his family have to be a good piece for him. His coaches need to understand the person behind the player and help him grow at a pace that makes sense.”
We need to make sure that Agudelo is hungry every time he touches a ball, that he understands that no matter whose shirt he has on or what pitch he’s gracing, he can never stop maturing and he can always get better. That starts this weekend when he returns to Red Bull Arena to face Houston.
It continues when Hans Backe and his staff (wisely) continue to micro-manage every single touch Agudelo makes. It becomes even safer every time an accomplished veteran teammate like Thierry Henry or Donovan reminds him that even though he's pretty good, there's much more work he needs to do.
This is all for his own good. He can be great, but we all need to do our part to help him get there. Every time we push the weight of expectations on him, we're doing him the worst disservice imaginable.
Agudelo may yet be the next great American superstar. But give the kid time and space – and for the love of the Beautiful Game, let’s all please calm down. We owe him that.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.