FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Somewhere lost in the mix of New England’s six-game unbeaten streak is Juan Agudelo.
While the 22-year-old has certainly not been lost on the pitch, the winning has maybe overshadowed the fact that he has served as a substitute in each of those games.
A starter for the first 14 games of the season, Agudelo was and is expected to feature prominently in the Revs attack, but after suffering a knee injury while out with the US national team in June, the forward has had to work his way back to full fitness and in the process accept his current role.
“I really like his approach,” New England head coach Jay Heaps said ahead of their Sunday evening road match against Toronto FC (5 pm ET; ESPN2). “It’s never easy when you’re not getting as many minutes as you want. When Juan had a little bit of knock to his knee in the summer, it took away a lot of his ability to train extremely hard. It took away some of his fitness. So Juan had to take a step back to go forward. Some players take that step back and never move forward. Juan has definitely moved forward.”
Being able to pull a player like Agudelo off of your bench is a luxury that few other teams can match, and it’s led to him scoring two goals in the Revs’ last three games. It’s evidence that he has raised his level back to where it needs to be, and he seems to be enjoying himself in the process.
“It was definitely hard and a learning experience,” Agudelo told MLSsoccer.com of the process in getting back to full fitness. “There was maybe a game I shouldn’t have played in, and I tried. That sort of delayed things training-wise, with my effort, because of being afraid of making it worse during training. It was lingering on, and then we had a bye week, and that’s when it really recovered. Then I was able to over exert myself in the training to become fit again.”
But Agudelo let it be known that he is far from content coming off the bench and that he continues to work day-in and day-out to return to the starting XI.
“It definitely pushes me to become a starter,” said Agudelo, whose six goals this season are second most on the Revs and one off of his career best for a season. “But we’re winning games, and that’s what’s most important to me. I think any way that I can come in and influence the team and help them will be great. My main goal is to win the MLS Cup final. For us to be in a good place once playoffs start is important.”
The play of the club is another main point as to why Agudelo has been relegated to the bench at the start of matches.
With Agudelo the sub, Heaps has had an opportunity to see more of him in his natural position.
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“I really like the way he’s adapted to his role playing a No. 9,” said Heaps. “At the beginning of the year we used him a lot more as a wide forward, but now we’re definitely seeing him more as a No. 9, with the versatility to play on the wing as well. We’re excited about his progression and we really like the way he’s playing. When you have guys that can come off the bench and buy into that, even though it’s not what they want, it shows the kind of player Juan’s going to continue to be, and get better.”
Agudelo knows the key to his resurgence, besides the continued health, is his willingness to accept his current position, knowing that he needs to keep working hard to get back to helping the club from the game’s opening kick.
“I understand,” said Agudelo simply. “The team’s been playing well, and you shouldn’t change too much when the team’s winning. I understand that and feel comfortable coming on. I’m doing well in training, and I’m going to keep fighting to be a starter getting those wins. I want to be a starter that’s winning, but I’m also okay coming off the bench and winning, too.”