EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Last Saturday, Juan Agudelo earned his first regular-season start for the New York Red Bulls. Seven days later, the 18-year-old striker netted his second goal for the United States national team.
If that narrative doesn't add up, it's because, well, it shouldn't. Agudelo's rise from Red Bulls development academy player to equalizing force against Argentina is nothing short of shocking.
Now the hard part begins.
"There's been a lot of Juans who have come and gone," Tim Howard said after the US' 1-1 draw with Argentina in front of a record-breaking crowd of nearly 80,000 at New Meadowlands Stadium. "There have been very few guys who have been able to sustain it, so I think that's the challenge for us and for him."
The problem for defenses is containing Agudelo. He netted the game-winning goal against South Africa in his first cap, drew a penalty kick in his second match wearing the Red, White and Blue, and equalized in the 59th minute against Argentina in his third.
And that Red Bulls game? Oh yeah, he won that one as well, scoring a second-half goal by holding off a Seattle Sounders defender and blasting the ball past former US goalkeeper Kasey Keller.
[inline_node:332183]On the field, it sometimes seems as though he can do no wrong. Except he can, and Agudelo knows it. He is his own harshest critic.
"I scored the goal, but I feel like anybody could score that goal," he said after Saturday's match. "I feel like I was in good position for a rebound, and I worked hard to get there, but I wasn't happy with my game.
"I felt like I should have held the ball better, but it's hard because Argentina is such a good team that as soon as you get the ball, there are five guys around you."
That's not false modesty, either. Agudelo appeared genuinely dejected after the match, smiling when he recounted what it meant to score against Lionel Messi's team but almost immediately reverting to a look of disappointment. He was vastly different from the giddy guy who appeared in the press line after drawing a game-tying penalty kick against Chile in January.
With great power comes a greater power to critique? This is a teenager who could easily be with his agemates in Guatemala as the US Under-20 team prepares for the CONCACAF Championship. According to the USYNT Twitter feed, Thomas Rongen's squad exploded in cheers when one of their own found the back of the net for the senior side.
So, perspective: Agudelo's recent run has been exemplary, but it's only been three games, of which he started exactly zero. And yet the kid makes things happen. Even the tight-lipped Bradley offered some praise.
"He's had a knack now for turning up in some good spots to get goals, so we're pleased with the things that we see," the coach said, breaking into a half-smile, a rare sight for the US boss. "I think most of all he has a good attitude about working on the little things and picking up things from other players."
It's those small details that will endear the forward to his coach. Production is important, but Bradley – ever the perfectionist – values players who constantly focus on improving the minor details of their game.
The coach knows – and his charge is learning – that goal-scoring form comes and goes. Making the correct run is forever. If Agudelo wants to continue to see more time for the US, he'll have to improve in those areas. If he keeps his head about him, he will.
"The advice we've given him, and I think it comes from his family as well, is to keep your feet on the ground in this whole thing," Bradley said.
It's early, but so far, Agudelo is heeding the advice of his coach, his family and his goalkeeper. His feet are firmly rooted to the field. Except when he scores.
"I realized everybody was running and the crowd was cheering and I celebrated," he said.
Briefly. Then he returned to solid footing and started all over again.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.