I have been waiting for Juan Agudelo to break out since 2011. You probably have, too, since he's scored some of this decade's most ridiculously great goals:
Let's go to 2011:
(Here is that Thierry Henry goal the commentator, John Harkes, was referencing)
Fast forward two years, to August of 2013:
Two months after that:
The 2015 playoffs:
I'm not sure anybody in the league has a better highlight reel since 2010. I know that many have longer highlight reels, because as talented as Agudelo is, and for as long as he's been around, he's still yet to post a double-digit scoring season. He's come close, bagging nine in just 1400 minutes back in 2013, and seven in 1349 minutes last year. Both seasons, and most of his other ones, have been marred by injury of some sort, and that's depressed his numbers. Nonetheless, 32 goals and 15 assists in 7460 minutes is a nice-if-unspectacular haul for a forward just entering his prime.
The question for this year in New England, though: Is Agudelo a forward? Because throughout preseason, and down the stretch last year, he was playing as a pseudo No. 10 at the point of a 4-4-2 diamond. It seems like a bizarre choice given that Jay Heaps has two "true" No. 10s on his roster – final third technician Lee Nguyen and a more modern, European-style No. 10 in Kelyn Rowe – but entering 2017 it looks like Nguyen will play as a second forward, Rowe will play at right midfield, and Kei Kamara will play as a target forward (IMO Agudelo's best position).
Several times in the past few months I'd advocated for the Revs to trade Kamara in exchange for defensive depth and maybe some GAM. Agudelo was so good last year in that No. 9 role (watch him wreck Matt Hedges, the league's best defender, the US Open Cup final) that it feels wrong to see him anywhere else.
Except... well, he was equally good in that false 10 role last year, and toggled between the two spots once he got healthy in late summer. In the season's last two months he logged four goals and three assists as the Revs went 5-2-0, and was generally one of the best attackers in the league. Trading Kamara no longer makes much, if any, sense.
"Heaps dropped Agudelo into a deeper role to provide more space for his most creative players. Agudelo needed more of the ball to get into the rhythm of the game. Nguyen required more freedom to operate in different areas after opposing sides crowded him out," is how Kyle McCarthy, who covers the Revs for the Boston Herald and the New England Soccer Journal, sees it. "By flipping the two of them from their natural locations on the field and pushing them into unorthodox spots around the constant threat posed by Kamara, Heaps freed them to do what they do best."
This, from preseason, is a long clip, but I encourage you to watch it all to get a feel for what the Agudelo/Nguyen/Kamara combo is going to be so fascinating to watch:
On the first push forward, Nguyen flares out to the left side, and clears out space underneath for Agudelo and Diego Fagundez. It doesn't quite come off.
On the second push forward, Kamara flares out to the right, but rather than busting as hard as possible to get into the 18 – as a forward usually does – Nguyen instead sort of drifts at the top of the area. That keeps the runway clear for Agudelo (the midfielder) to make the second forward's run to the back post and get a tap-in.
These guys have switched roles on paper, and they've switched where on the field they'll get the lion's share of their touches. But in the final third Agudelo is still a forward and Nguyen is still a midfielder. Nobody in the league that I can think of has played like this out of the diamond. You could argue Dwaye DeRosario's glory days with San Jose and Houston would be closest, but even that wasn't quite the same. And while Frank Lampard made a living scoring goals like that, he spent the vast majority of his career behind one forward, not two.
"There are few players in MLS as innately gifted as Agudelo in the final third," McCarthy offered. "His feel for the game means it doesn't really matter whether he plays up top or slides into a more withdrawn role. Those characteristics translate well in either. The bonus now is that he is in the middle of a side with several talented players capable of influencing the match. Their traits accentuate his strengths and provide him with a platform to truly thrive week after week."
Notice, too, that the Revs were much more patient in build-ups at the end of last year, when they switched to the diamond, than they'd previously been under Heaps. Their M.O. from about 2013 onward was to hammer the ball upfield as quick as possible, drive it into the attacking third, and hold it there with intricate interplay centered around Nguyen's on-the-ball trickery. They've finished in the top two in the league in passes both attempted and completed in the final third each of the past four seasons because of that.
I think those numbers will drop this year, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Drawing the opposing defense higher means more space for that trio of elite attackers, and tougher runs to track out of midfield. It should work, and that's why I've picked Agudelo as both my breakout player this year and the most interesting guy in the league to watch.
This isn't, of course, the biggest issue for the Revs. The fact is they have three new starters in defense (d-mid Xavier Kouassi, and center backs Antonio Mlinar Delamea and Benjamin Angoua), and a new starting 'keeper. Things went bad at the back last year, and that was the defining story of New England's season.
If the same thing happens this year, though, I think the firepower is better arrayed to win more shootouts more often, and Agudelo's at the center of it. Keep an eye on him.