AMSTERDAM – With newly signed Stoke City forward Juan Agudelo on the verge of completing a loan move to FC Utrecht, it is time to inspect his temporary landing spot to get an idea of how the Eredivisie stint can contribute to his development.
The 21-year-old's UK work permit was denied earlier this winter, but there is no reason to hang heads about it. The Dutch top flight has an excellent record of raising the game of young Americans.
From the level of playing comfort Agudelo can find to the atmosphere around the club to the position they find themselves in heading to the back stretch, there is a lot to consider.
FC Utrecht, founded in 1970, are the largest club in the city of Utrecht, the fourth-largest city in Holland. They play in the Stadion Galgenwaard, which holds nearly 25,000 people and is famous for hosting the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup final, won 2-1 by Argentina over Nigeria thanks to two goals from a 17-year-old Lionel Messi.
Last season, they finished in rarified territory in the table: 5th place. They earned a spot in the Europa League, but their continental campaign didn't last long: They crashed out in the 2nd round to Luxembourg's Differdange.
Utrecht currently sit in 9th place through 19 matches. But they are doing better in the domestic cup. If they can win on Wednesday at lowly NEC Nijmegen, they will advance to the KNVB Cup semifinals.
While the offense is actually just shy of last year's goal pace, the defense has already allowed 39 goals, or two fewer than all of last season. The side seems especially to love leaking goals on the road -- 22 of the 39 have been away from home -- but it hasn't been much better at home recently. They have now dropped three straight matches at home by a galling 12-4 count.
To put it bluntly, the attack is being asked to step up production out of necessity, at least until their teammates at the back can start latching the barn door.
Agudelo's temporary boss will be former Dutch international Jan Wouters, who got his playing start at Utrecht. The former midfielder – a UEFA Team of the Tournament honoree following the Dutch victory at Euro '88 – led the club to a fine 5th-place finish last year in his first full season in charge there.
Wouters has also previously coached with Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Rangers, so Agudelo will not be the first American he has helped to mold. The coach already had the chance to work with US national team aces John O'Brien, DaMarcus Beasley and Claudio Reyna to good effect.
Those three Americans rounded their games under Wouters to the point that they could ably work in secondary positions, something Agudelo should prepare himself for at Utrecht. While he could see time as a speedy No. 9 "pinch-hitter" -- a term used by the Dutch for a late-goal threat up top -- he will likely also see time out wide. Wherever he sees action, the technically gifted forward is set for an advanced tactical education under his new manager.
In a general sense, Utrecht line up and attempt to play just as you would expect any Dutch team worth its halftime croquette sandwiches to play. Of course, as a team usually found in or near the middle third of the table, they are sometimes pushed back into their end by the top clubs. For instance, Ajax, FC Twente and Feyenoord each pretty well took apart Utrecht in the last meeting.
For this reason, they tend to look positively giddy when loose on the counter, something they will drill a lot more than those up near the league penthouse. Considering how the USMNT likes to play, this training wrinkle could work to enhance Agudelo's attractiveness to coach Jurgen Klinsmann's World Cup 2014 plans.
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When Utrecht are on the ball in the final third, they are as daring and imaginative as you would expect from an Eredivisie team, if not always effective. Though not big, top striker Steve de Ridder excels at knockdown assists. Like last season's slumping top scorer, Jacob Mulenga, De Ridder also likes to draw defenders on the dribble and play tight combos around the area. All tolled, Agudelo should enjoy running off either Utrecht forward. He should also be ready to pounce for rebounds whenever midfield cannon Jens Toornstra, currently the team leader with eight league goals, loads up from distance.
While there should be opportunities to score on the field, there will also be competition off it. In addition to the aforementioned strikers, Agudelo will be battling with a small group of talented youngsters for playing time. While Bob Schepers has yet to break out in the top flight, Australia World Cup hopeful Tommy Oar is showing signs of improvement on left wing and Yoshiaki Takagi has provided playmaking spark off the bench.
When he sees action, Agudelo will become just the second American to play for Utrecht. The first was also a young loan player named John O'Brien. In other words, the local fans will likely be more patient and welcoming than the average destination for an American prospect.
The team is also used to being stocked with youngsters who must battle their guts out just to see success in the league. Last season, they finished in 5th place, rarified levels for the small club. Since they are backing such overachievers, the supporters live up to that term pretty well.
Given the conditions he's stepping into, it seems reasonable to think Agudelo could work a decent 8-10 Eredivisie contests if he gains fitness quickly and keeps it. One would also hope he could get on the scoreboard a few times, but more important will be the tactical growth he can achieve in a short stay with Utrecht.
And if they can win a couple games in the cup, he can also enjoy the invaluable experience of suiting up to play for a piece of championship silver. It is not so far-fetched as one might think; Utrecht have won two of the three KNVB Cup finals reached over the last dozen years.