The tale of Juan Agudelo: How a prodigy beat the hype, revived his career

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The version of Juan Agudelo that Matt Kassell remembers was, well, just 17. 

Agudelo, fresh off signing a Homegrown Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, lived in Hoboken, New Jersey with Kassell, a fellow academy product and, subsequently, a Red Bulls teammate. It was about an hour and a half from his hometown in Barnegat, New Jersey, and when he wasn’t hanging around the mall with friends or talking about girls, the teenager had a hobby of sorts.

“One of the things he used to do is he brought his bike up and he had one of the ones with pegs on it,” Kassell said with a laugh. “He'd ride it around in Hoboken with his bike with pegs on it, so everybody thought that was a little kid thing.”

Now, the version Agudelo’s head coach with the New England Revolution – Jay Heaps – recalls is one of a different mold. Their conversations, Heaps said, have evolved from ones where he’s explaining tactical nuances to how he can be the Revs’ glue in the locker room.

“It's 'Hey, this guy is down. Why don't you have a conversation with him?' Words coming from Juan now mean a lot to players, especially younger players and even senior players,” Heaps said. “There's no one in there who won't respect it, because if Juan says something then you're going to listen.”

That parallel is but one example of the 24-year-old striker’s maturity, a journey from a mercurial soccer prodigy to a young father with a career.

The steps along the way – scoring on his debut with the US national team at 17, failing to secure a work permit with Stoke City, not playing professionally for over a year and resurrecting his career in New England – are well documented. So is the pressure placed on his shoulders as American soccer’s next great savior, but Agudelo now has a different perspective on life. 

For one, he’s taking real estate classes so that when he retires, he can still financially support his daughter.

“I feel like a legit man now,” Agudelo said. “I have responsibilities and an understanding of how important it is to do other things. It’s understanding that football is a passion and we love it. We treat it religiously, but it's not for your whole entire life. I think it's a very mature decision that if I didn't have a kid, I don't know if I would be making those steps to look at my future.”

Agudelo’s newfound outlook sounds distant from that of the bright-eyed teenager who burst onto the American soccer scene by scoring against South Africa and Argentina. He certainly remembers those moments, namely that first call-cup against the Bafana Bafana where he thought an email invitation from Bob Bradley referred to an upcoming U-20 national team camp.

Agudelo said he was just happy to be there –  “I dressed for the game, and I'm like, ‘OK I'm on the bench. This is awesome, great seats for this game, but I'm not going to play,’” – only for it to develop into what he dubbed the “week of his life.”

Flash forward, and Agudelo’s approach to the game has entirely transformed.

“I always wanted to be leading the game and be in control of the game,” Agudelo said. “After I score one goal, before I used to be like, ‘Yes I scored a goal, that's good.’ I could possibly get away with not scoring the next game. Now after I scored a goal, I'm like, ‘How many minutes do I have left to score another one?’ I used to never think like that.”

And in 2017, that approach has borne fruit, as Agudelo was named by Bruce Arena to the USMNT’s final roster for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, a benchmark he called a “huge target for me.” Agudelo is producing in MLS play, too, with seven goals and an assist through 15 games with the Revs. 

Still, those who have witnessed Agudelo’s journey firsthand harp on how much he’s matured, especially since his Red Bulls days.

The tale of Juan Agudelo: How a prodigy beat the hype, revived his career -

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Stephen Keel – then a veteran center back, and now a social media manager for Major League Soccer – remembers a dynamic where Agudelo was playing more with the national team (14 games with the U.S. in 2011) – than under Hans Backe in New York. They acquired Luke Rodgers, a British striker, and their other go-to option was none other than French legend Thierry Henry. 

Thus, playing time was sparse at the club level, and Agudelo said that was hard to deal with at times. Even harder, Keel attested, was Henry laying into Agudelo at times on the training ground.

“We'd be talking and Juan is like, 'Thierry, man. He's just all over me,’” Keel said. “It came from a good place of wanting the best for Juan, but it was also tough when you're 17 and you have a guy you've looked up to your whole life who was hard on you, who was getting after you.”

Carl Robinson, also Agudelo’s teammate in New York and now the head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, remembers the same dynamic on the training ground.

“When you have Thierry in the team, he used to put incredible demands on Juan,” Robinson said. “It was interesting because we used to play 'Good cop, Bad cop' and bounce off each other. When Thierry would give him a little pop, then I used to put the arm on the shoulder and things like that. But he's a good kid, and what we were both trying to get out of him is to be the best person and best player he could be.”

Intentions aside, those early days with Henry have stuck with Agudelo, once a kid who asked his mom to buy Henry’s cleats so he could play youth tournaments with them.

Then, as teammates, Agudelo said somehow, someway, he’d manage to tick off Henry.

“I remember one time I went up for a header and he was pissed,” Agudelo said. “In the air, he karate kicked me in the back. Luckily it didn't hit a hard spot where I could have gotten injured, but I was like, ‘Oh my god, what the hell.’ I was shocked more than mad. I was like, ‘Whoa, I never expected something like this.’ I was young, I can't say anything, this guy has been in Europe.”

Still, much like every part of Agudelo’s development, training ground stories have gone from ones of youthful innocence to ones of maturity. 

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Dax McCarty, a Chicago Fire midfielder who was also called into the January 2017 camp, said the Colombian-American impressed mightily during his first ever camp under Arena.

“I got to January camp a couple days late and I asked the guys I was close with and my roommate Luis Robles who’s standing out,” McCarty said. “He said everyone’s been on the same level, but he told me Juan has had a really good camp and I then I saw it. I saw it in training every day. The one common denominator I was a part of was that Juan was scoring goals. 

“He was being very dangerous and it was a testament to how far he has come,” McCarty added. “Juan was this younger player who was good for one or two fantastic plays in training and then he would disappear. Now as he’s gotten older and learned more about his game, it’s so much better in terms of being more well-rounded.” 

A major part of becoming more well-rounded, Agudelo said,was not allowing the hype of being the national team’s next biggest and brightest star get to his head. 

That buzz, he said, was hard to ignore, what with the ESPN Magazine features, but his focus was elsewhere.

“My goal wasn't to be on a Frosted Flakes box or something,” Agudelo said. “My goal was to play in Europe, so I wasn't satisfied when I was younger. Things were coming at me, but I was brushing them off to the side. Yeah, people wanted to do interviews but I wasn't understanding why so many if I haven't played a World Cup or even the highest level, which is Europe.” 

That perception came as no surprise to Robinson, who said the hardest thing for a young footballer is not letting the noise get to his head. And when you’re being labeled the next Freddy Adu, in Agudelo’s case, Robinson said, that’s a difficult proposition to sift through.

The tale of Juan Agudelo: How a prodigy beat the hype, revived his career -

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Lee Nguyen, Agudelo’s teammate in New England and close friend, said he’s noticed the striker truly come of age on the field, becoming a “more complete player.”

 But what stands out most to Nguyen is how this version of Agudelo keeps the mood of the locker room light.  

“He wants to win in everything, no matter if it's soccer, chess, ping pong, basketball, whatever,” Nguyen said. “He turns anything into a competition. We'll be playing, and if he wins one or loses one then he'll want to turn it into a gambling game.

“For example, we'll play ping pong and we'll play best of three games,” Nguyen added. “If he loses, then he wants to turn it into a $5 game, then a $10 game. It's always funny.”

All things considered, this Agudelo fans are seeing week in and week out is worlds apart from the one that burst onto the scene in 2011. 

For one, his understanding of what it means to be a complete striker has entirely transformed.

“Before, I used to be like, 'Yeah, he scores a lot of tap-ins, but he's not a great player,’” Agudelo said. “I needed to understand that great players score a lot of tap-ins and score a lot of goals and help their team most importantly. I understand now how important it is to score goals. For the first time in my career I've actually felt like a legit goalscorer. I'm not looking to be pretty.”

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Agudelo still has goals and aspirations of proving his worth in Europe. He got a taste of that in 2014, playing on loan at FC Utrecht in the Dutch Eredivise, scoring three goals in 14 games.

Still, he said it “didn't feel like it was a successful six months.” And, as Spencer Wadsworth, his agent through Wasserman, put it, there will always be the thought of what could have been.

“Back in 2014, I can tell you he wasn't short of options in Germany,” Wadsworth said. “He had the pick of the litter in Germany outside of Bayern Munich, basically we had conversations with every single team. They were Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs. We wanted to pursue England, so that was where our focus was. The top team in Belgium, Anderlecht. Teams in Spain wanted him. You know how England is, though, it's the place you want to be.”

That sentiment is still fresh on Agudelo’s mind, too. It surfaces in a 30-minute sit-down interview at Gillette Stadium in early May.

“We only live this life so short,” Agudelo said. “We're only here temporarily, and that too I've been realizing. I'm only going to be 24 one time, I'm only going to have these legs, run this much, one time in my life. I have to take advantage of it. I feel like I have, but there's still more to give, and also the one big thing is the World Cup. 

“This thing comes around only maybe three times for a player, and I don't to die wishing I went to a World Cup,” Agudelo added. “It's something that everyone watches on TV. I would hate to be 48, watching the World Cup on TV, and being like, 'Wow, what must have the been like? I've played in every other game, every other competition, but I don't know what the World Cup is like.’”

And that, in a nutshell, embodies the new Agudelo, the one that’s a mainstay for the Revs, that's looking to cement that long-expected spot on the U.S national team. Poised, thoughtful and measured – on and off the pitch.