Agudelo enjoying European dream, with an eye toward World Cup

American forward Juan Agudelo long dreamed of playing European soccer, and realized that dream last weekend in the Netherlands, where he's hoping to revive his World Cup chances.
In Juan Agudelo’s young career, he has been lucky enough to realize many of his dreams. The striker turned pro at the age of 17, and managed to earn his first U.S. cap and score his first international goal before he turned 18.

None of those prior achieved goals put him through as much anguish as the path to his most recent accomplishment. Agudelo had envisioned himself playing European soccer as long as he could remember, and his dream finally came true last Saturday when he took the field for FC Utrecht in an Eredivisie match, marking the latest chapter in a career with plenty left to be done.

“There’s happiness and there’s relief,” Agudelo told Goal USA. “I always believed that I would get here, but it still wasn’t an easy process. I’m just ready to enjoy it and go to work.”

The process Agudelo referred to wasn’t so much his climb from young prospect to target of clubs across Europe, but the recent saga that led him from the New England Revolution to a multi-million dollar contract with Stoke City and subsequent loan to FC Utrecht, where he will spend the rest of the Eredivisie season.

Agudelo was all set to go to Stoke City after the 2013 MLS season ended, having signed a pre-contract agreement, when his plans ran into the brick wall known as the UK work permit appeal process. He failed to qualify because of his lack of appearances for the U.S. national team in recent years, and his appeal fell short for the same reasons, even though he had been regarded as a top prospect for years.

The failed work permit appeal looked like it would torpedo Agudelo’s move to Stoke City, but the English club stuck with the young forward and eventually completed the deal anyway, choosing to loan him out and hope that a strong showing at FC Utrecht would boost his case for a UK work permit this summer.

“Stoke stuck with me through that and I can’t thank them enough for that,” Agudelo said. “They showed that they believe in me and now it’s up to me to make the most of this opportunity.”

Stoke City wasn’t Agudelo’s only option this winter, and if his work permit ordeal did anything, it helped provide a reminder of just how much interest there was in his services. As he explored options, more and more offers came in from countries like Spain, France, Turkey, Belgium, and Denmark.

“It was definitely flattering, and I thank God for all the options that I had,” Agudelo said. “It was awesome to have to make a decision and not to have to wait for something to come. I was blessed in that part.”

Agudelo’s final decision to go to FC Utrecht, and follow the path blazed by the likes of Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley in the Eredivisie, was driven at least in part by his continued hope for a place on the U.S. World Cup team. He passed on a very lucrative offer from a Turkish side in order to spend at least a half season in the Eredivisie, where he hopes he can match the goal-scoring exploits of Altidore and current U.S. national team forward Aron Johannsson.

“I feel like I’ve sacrificed a lot for the World Cup, to try and not give up on that chance to go to the World Cup,” Agudelo said. “A big part of my decision to go to (the Netherlands) was because of the World Cup. If the World Cup wasn’t six months away, I think I’d probably be in Turkey right now.”

Agudelo confirmed that he had spoken to Altidore about making the move to the Netherlands, and Altidore gave the Dutch league rave reviews.

“I definitely talked to him about it and he told me it was a great league for strikers and I would definitely get my chances,” Agudelo said. “I know if I put in the work I will have chances come my way, and I just need to finish them.”

Agudelo also revealed that U.S. boss Jurgen Klinsmann was fully in favor of the move to the Eredivisie, a league where Agudelo would have the opportunity to impress and potentially play his way back into the national team picture.

The only way that will happen is if Agudelo plays well, and he had already started working toward that goal last year, helping the New England Revolution to the MLS playoffs. His form then provided glimpses of a player who could still potentially break back into the U.S. national team conversation before the World Cup.

It won’t be easy, not with young forwards Aron Johannsson and Terrence Boyd scoring goals with regularity, and veterans like Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez in the U.S. forward conversation as well.

Agudelo will have his chances, and he will have them on a stage on which he has been waiting for so long to perform. He has spent the past three weeks in England and the Netherlands soaking in the atmosphere, and now that he has fully experienced what life is like in Europe, it has been all he had imagined.

“People here take (soccer) as a religion,” Agudelo said. “It’s not just a sport. It’s a way of life. They can’t wait for the weekend for the games to start, and they love their team.

“It’s the kind of atmosphere every player dreams of playing in.”

It was a dream for Agudelo. Now that he has realized it, he is hoping can lead him to the next goal on his check list, playing in the World Cup.