The New England Revolution's 20-year-old striker has signed a pre-contract to join English Premier League side Stoke City on Jan. 1.It was three years, two clubs and 17 caps ago that Juan Agudelo, with 14 MLS minutes under his belt, received the most unlikely of assignments.
Then 17 years old, Agudelo was called upon to start both legs of the New York Red Bulls' playoff encounter with the San Jose Earthquakes. New York dropped the series, but Agudelo still showcased his tools. The pace. The trickery. The vision.
His U.S. national team debut came a month later, as did his first goal. The Gold Cup and MLS All-Star Game followed. From the beginning, the American soccer community knew it had a special talent on hand. Just keep watching.
"It's simple: Play as if I was playing with my friends in a pickup game," Agudelo told Goal of handling the exposure. "The other things, I don't really think about."
Now the fulcrum of the New England Revolution attack, Agudelo is en route to English side Stoke City come Jan. 1. Yet for all the accolades the striker has accumulated before his 21st birthday, a cameo off the bench for New York in 2011 remains his only postseason appearance since his rookie year.
With this stint stateside coming to an end, Agudelo knows he's on his last chance to reword that chapter of his MLS narrative. At 11-11-9, the Revolution are just three points out of a playoff spot with three games to go.
"I love that pressure, that kind of anxiety you have because it's an either win or go home type of deal," Agudelo said. "Ideally, anybody would want to end in any league that they play in on a good note. It's definitely going to be in the back of my mind."
Agudelo's legacy in MLS is one of towering but somewhat untapped potential. In retrospect, it's evident his rise was rushed. But he's been more productive than ever since joining the Revolution in a May trade with Chivas USA.
The lone striker in coach Jay Heaps' 4-1-4-1 formation, Agudelo is leaned on to hold up the ball and keep the momentum with forward-thinking passes. The system's free-flowing nature also allows him to swap positions with fellow attackers Saer Sene, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen and 18-year-old MVP candidate Diego Fagundez.
Although injuries have limited Agudelo to 11 leagues matches (eight starts) with New England, he has still compiled six goals — including an exquisite over-the-keeper back-heel chip in an August win over Chicago.
"It's been an ideal situation for him," Heaps said. "We have young players, so he's not the youngest player out there. We have technical players that he really likes playing with. And we play a system that allows him freedom to express himself offensively."
From his off-the-field bond with his attacking cohorts to his positive relationship with the 37-year-old Heaps, Agudelo has secured stability in New England that proved evasive during his previous MLS stops.
In two-plus seasons with New York, Agudelo found consistent minutes hard to come by as coach Hans Backe leaned on his veterans — a perspective the player now understands.
"There's a lot of pressure of maybe getting fired if the team's not performing too well," Agudelo said. "So there's a lot of chances they may not want to take."
Even though a trade to Chivas USA in May 2012 took him to an organization more willing to roll the dice, a roster overhaul that returned the struggling franchise to its Mexican roots paved the way for Agudelo's exit a year later.
The caveat to his steadier time in New England has been its inherent mortality. Agudelo arrived with a soon-to-expire contract, and his desire to ply his trade abroad was clear.
So it came as little surprise in August when Agudelo inked a pre-contract to join Stoke City during the winter transfer window, convening with fellow Americans Geoff Cameron, Maurice Edu and Brek Shea at the English Premier League outfit.
"I know he has a huge opportunity for him and I think that's life-changing," Heaps said. "But I think if Juan were to continue playing in MLS — say this were year two of a four-year contract, or something — I think he'd rise with the way he's playing for our team and what he does for our group.
"He would be in the national team mix. I think he's done enough — he just needs to do it over an extended period of time. If he goes to Stoke and he's given that opportunity, I think he'll exceed expectations."
Whether he'll get that chance is difficult to foresee. While Cameron is a regular starter for Stoke, Edu and Shea have been buried on the bench. As a result, that duo's U.S. national team prospects have eroded.
Like his postseason endeavors, Agudelo has found his meteoric success on the international level tough to reproduce. After starting three Gold Cup matches in 2011 under Bob Bradley, Agudelo has been limited to coming off the bench for the USA in friendlies since Jurgen Klinsmann took over that August.
"I feel like getting back in the group will just be awesome for me," Agudelo said, pausing midsentence to exhale yearningly. "I have to think about the things that will get me back in the group, which is staying healthy and doing what I'm doing when I am healthy, and I feel like I'll get the call-up again."
Last capped in January, Agudelo most recently heard from Klinsmann early in the summer. The message then?
"We'll keep watching."
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