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Player Spotlight

Juan Agudelo Bucks Trend, Wants to Succeed in Europe

While many American soccer stars are turning their backs on Europe, Juan Agudelo is determined to succeed on soccer's biggest stage. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke to the 21-year-old about his ambition.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 13, 2014
3:21 PM
THE THOUGHT OF JUAN AGUDELO must bring a smile to Jurgen Klinsmann's face.

In an era where many top American players are returning from Europe to play in MLS (Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu), or resisting opportunities abroad to play in a more comfortable environment (Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi), Juan Agudelo is something of an outlier. He is committed to playing in Europe and determined to compete at the highest-possible level.

And with a goal and an assist in his first three games for his new club, FC Utrecht, the 21-year-old striker is off to a flying start.

“I’m happy,” Agudelo told American Soccer Now. “I really enjoy playing European football. Ever since I was a little kid I would look up to the players I saw on TV and they were always the ones playing in Europe. I told my Mom that I would play in Europe one day, and ever since then it has been my goal."

"That’s where the best players right now and that’s where I want to test myself.”

Agudelo signed a pre-contract with Stoke City last summer but his appeal for a British work permit was denied and he was forced to go on loan. Eventually he agreed to join Utrecht for the remained of the season until he can make another attempt for a work permit to join Stoke.

In his first start, Agudelo assisted on the equalizing goal against perennial Dutch powers Ajax. In the following game, he scored a wonder goal against PEC Zwolle when he turned past his defender and unleashed a powerful shot that rippled the top of the net.

“It was special since it was my first European goal,” he said. “Most importantly, I want to help the team win. Once the team believes that I’m helping them win, we build more chemistry."

Born in Colombia but raised in New Jersey, Agudelo arrived at Utrecht with high expectations. One of the top young American forwards in the game, Agudelo scored in his first appearance with the United States national team—a strike against South Africa a few days before his 18th birthday. In MLS he has showed glimpses of his talent, but he was stuck behind Thierry Henry in New York and then went to a dysfunctional Chivas USA team after that. The striker flourished during his time with the New England Revolution last season, helping the team reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.

Looking back at his time in MLS, he appreciates what the league did for him in terms of development and opportunity, but he is adamant that the move to Europe is a step up.

“MLS helped me and gave me more of an understanding of what professionalism is in a soccer aspect,” Agudelo said. “It made me grow up, mature, learn how to handle things, and understand steps that it takes to be a good pro. I tried to do my best to absorb all that information and transfer it to Europe."

"I feel that the technique here is better," he continued. "There are very athletic players in MLS but it lacks a little bit of technique whereas in Holland the players’ technique is great. I’m excited because it’s a league that creates a lot chances. It is eye-opening for me.”

Agudelo's eyes also grew a bit wider last November when he learned that his UK work permit appeal was denied, meaning that he couldn't play for Stoke City immediately. Both he and the club remain hopeful that the next attempt will be successful, and his solid outings at Utrecht are so so far bolstering his resume.

“We were surprised and bitterly disappointed when our application for a work permit was rejected by the appeals panel—as were many other people in the game,” Stoke City chief executive Tony Scholes said. “It’s still our view that Juan is a great talent and is a player that Mark Hughes would like to join our squad. We have therefore decided that we are going to reapply for a work permit at the earliest opportunity.”

Agudelo, for his part, said he is not nervous about the work permit process because if he continues to play well at Utrecht, there will always be options for him.

As to whether his work permit rejection was a blessing in disguise since it has given him an introduction to Europe in the offensive-minded Eredivisie instead of the Premier League, Agudelo is reluctant to say. But he does admit that the Netherlands has been an ideal starting point.

“Maybe this actually was a better path that God has paved for me," he said. Maybe it's better to arrive "at the beginning of a season, have a preseason with them, and then start off running."

“[The Premier League] is definitely going to be more physical than in Holland. I understand that but I’m a pretty big boy so I think I can help myself with that. It’s different with the mentality of how European soccer is thought of here. It’s good that I’m getting used to that here before I go to an even bigger stage where the stadiums are sold out in England all the time.”

Utrecht is also quite pleased with the addition of Agudelo. Even though the American will only be at the club for a limited period of time, he has given the team a boost and has emerged as a starter almost immediately.

"He is an all-round attacker with enormous quality," said FC Utrecht head of scouting Edwin de Kruijff. "He is technically proficient, has a huge craving for the [game], can manage well with a man at his back, and is also fairly quick."

The career path that is now in front of Agudelo is similar to that of his friend, Jozy Altidore, who also began his career with the New York Red Bulls and left for Europe at an early age. Altidore, of course, soared to new heights in the Eredivisie and set an American record for goals in Europe, scoring 31 goals in all competitions with AZ Alkmaar. Altidore then parlayed that performance into a high-cost transfer to Sunderland in the Premier League.

When Agudelo's work permit application was denied, he spoke to Altidore about his next step. Altidore’s recommendation—go to the Eredivisie— carried a lot of weight, and so did Altidore's advice regarding the differences between the Dutch top flight and the EPL.

“He has definitely been a good mentor for me because he’s played in these leagues,” Agudelo explained. “He said Holland would be a good match for me and thought I would do well here and I just have to be careful when I go onto maybe the Premier League. I have to be ready and the team has to be right for me. He was actually a big part of my decision as to why I came to Holland.”

With Agudelo’s strong start in the Eredivisie, there is also growing momentum that he could make a push to make the World Cup team this summer. Agudelo has earned 17 caps since his first appearance in 2010, but he has only earned two appearances in the last two calendar years. Almost all of his caps came when he was a teenager.

Competition is currently very tight on the U.S. team in the forward position. Altidore and Aron Johannsson are locks to be on the plane to Brazil. After that, Eddie Johnson has also been an important forward in World Cup qualifying.

Agudelo spoke with Klinsmann in recent months and he believes there is still a chance to make the team in Brazil if he continues to excel in the Eredivisie.

“The World Cup means everything to me right now,” Agudelo said. “Maybe the World Cup means more than the work permit in my mind right now. I’ve spoken to Jurgen about options I had before I made my decision and then I told him the decision I was going to make. He wished me the best and told me to keep working hard and we’ll see what happens.”

Next up for Agudelo will be one of the marquee match-ups of the Eredivisie season—at least for American soccer fans. On Saturday Agudelo and Utrecht will visit AZ Alkmaar, which features Johannsson, currently on 21 goals this campaign.

The game will feature two of the top young American goal scorers in Europe and Agudelo is looking forward to facing off against him. “We actually ran into each other in Amsterdam at a restaurant and started talking,” Agudelo said of Johannsson. “It was crazy. We exchanged phone numbers. He’s really nice. It’s all competitive. We both know we play the same position. We’re just going to do our thing. It’s always going to be like that but the friendship aspect, it’s always there.”

As for the big game on Saturday?

“It’s going to be fun.”

What do you think of Agudelo's move to the Netherlands/England? Think he has a shot at the World Cup roster? Give us your take below.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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