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Juan Agudelo Tells ASN: 'I Want to Steal Starting Spot'

The 24-year-old striker has endured his share of ups and downs over the past few years, but he is energized and motivated to make a positive impression on Bruce Arena during January camp. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 09, 2017
5:00 PM

LONGTIME AMERICAN SOCCER FANS will no doubt remember where they were when John O’Brien scored against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup, and who they were with when Landon Donovan’s header helped eliminate Mexico—and set a new tone for American soccer.

For a young boy in Colombia, however, those moments were particularly inspirational.

Fourteen years later, Juan Agudelo wants to build upon those moments under the same coach who led the U.S. men's national team in South Korea.

“I was nine years old and watching it in Colombia,” Agudelo told American Soccer Now. “Everybody in Colombia looks up to the U.S. a lot to hopefully live there at one time because of the opportunities it gives you. With Colombia being such a soccer-specific country, to watch what Bruce did that year was special. It inspired a lot of people, even in Colombia. It inspired my Dad and my Mom. I then came over to the States.

"[Bruce Arena] had a huge impact on me at a young age. I've played against him and I'm sure he's yelled at me a few times when I went up against the Galaxy but to play for him is going to be special.”

Agudelo, now 24, has had an up-and-down history with the U.S. national team. As a teenager, he was one of the most promising prospects of his generation, combining a rare blend of technical skill, size, and strength that proved extremely difficult to defend.

He made his first full international appearance in a 2010 friendly against South Africa, becoming the youngest player to ever score for the U.S. team at just 17 (a record that was broken in 2016 by Christian Pulisic). The following year Agudelo would score against Argentina in a 1-1 draw just prior to the Gold Cup.

But 2011 proved to be a turning point for U.S. Soccer when Jurgen Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley and made significant changes to the player pool. Agudelo fell out of favor and was never used for anything more than a friendly under Klinsmann (and typically as a late game substitute). Agudelo played with promise at times, producing a late-game assist in 2012 against Russia and tallying in a 2015 win over Mexico. But he never established a spot on the squad.

It wasn’t entirely on Klinsmann either. Agudelo suffered through a messy 2014, deciding to make the jump to the English Premier League after signing a pre-contract with Stoke City in 2013. Unable to secure a work permit, Agudelo went on loan for a few months to the Dutch site FC Utrecht.

At the end of the Eredivisie season, Agudelo again failed to obtain a U.K work permit which terminated his deal with Stoke. Instead of returning to MLS immediately, Agudelo did not play club soccer for the rest of the year, eventually signing a new deal with New England for the 2015 season. Due to his inactivity, Agudelo tumbled down the national team depth chart.

“It was the toughest time of my life, sitting on the couch wondering if I made the right decision or not,” Agudelo said. “That was extremely tough on me. I chose it. I went through it. I learned a lot from it. Basically [I learned] how important it is to be out there on the field, getting playing time, and maturing as a player."

With 2014 in the rearview mirror and Klinsmann out of the picture, Agudelo believes he could benefit from the coaching change. He showed moments of exceptional play for New England during the 2016 season, scoring nine goals in 1,590 minutes—more than one goal every two games. He also ended the season playing his best soccer in years, scoring four goals and notching three assists in the Revolution’s final seven MLS matches.

“It's not a totally clean slate but it is a little bit of a clean slate,” Agudelo said. “But yes, coaches have their differences and they like different things. I feel like there are a lot of times with the Galaxy Arena played a 4-4-2 and players roam around the field a lot. It shows he wants the players to be free with a little bit more of a two-striker attacking formation—even if the No. 10 is a little bit higher.

"The teams he has coached have always played good football. It is very exciting for me to be part of it.”

New England coach Jay Heaps is adamant that Agudelo has the ability to perform at the highest level.

“He’s dynamic like that, and he’s still maturing and still becoming a complete player,” Heaps said. “That’s what I love about Juan—his upside. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface on it."

Now in Southern California, Agudelo will room with his best friend on the team and former U.S. residency program teammate, Sebastian Lletget.

Agudelo is expecting an intense time in camp, both because the U.S. needs at least four points from its next two games and because so many players will be trying to catch Arena's eye.

“Panicking isn't going to help anything,” Agudelo said. “We understand the situation and understand we have to get it going. We will stay calm. We realize how much talent we have in this country. It is all just putting it together in order to bring the U.S. to the World Cup.”

Among the current crop of forwards only Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood are locks—although both have been plagued by injuries. Jordan Morris had an exceptional rookie season but he is still inexperienced. Chris Wondolowski is quite a bit older than his fellow campmapges and Aron Johannsson is not a regular with Werder Bremen after missing almost the entire 2015-16 season with a hip injury.

So Agudelo does have an opportunity to impress Arena and his new coaching staff. He has trained hard since the end of the MLS season and has arrived in the Los Angeles area fit and ready to play hard. He is looking to make a strong statement and perhaps remind everyone of why he was once considered one of the most talented American teenagers of his generation.

“They’re going to help me improve my game,” Agudelo said of his fellow forwards. “For us to battle it out for almost a month, it's going to push me. We will all push each other and it's going to benefit us all. I am going to go out there and try to steal a starting spot. That is one of my main goals to be one of those stand out performers in January camp.”

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