BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, November 23, 2010
As he celebrates his 18th birthday this week, few American teenagers have had a week or month quite as exciting as New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo who has emerged over that time as a budding US star.
Just a month ago, Agudelo had yet to make his MLS debut but over the course of the next few weeks, he would break out with the Red Bulls which would lead to a US national team call-up.
He would then follow that up in his US debut with a game-winning goal in the 85th minute in last week's friendly versus South Africa.
"It's been a crazy week," Agudelo told YA in Atlanta. "I found out about [the call-up] three or four days before we left. Pam [Perkins] called me and let me know. It was just an amazing feeling when she said that I've been invited to go to South Africa."
When Agudelo found out that he was going to get the call-up, he was determined to not let the opportunity pass him.
"We had about five practices within three days," Agudelo recalled. "I worked really hard in those practices trying to see if I could get some minutes toward the end of the game. Practices were going really well. Getting toward the game, some of the guys – their legs were a little heavy. They were obviously trying to show what they have in the practices."
For Agudelo, the work in practice in South Africa would pay off. While he entered into the game hoping to get a few token minutes at the end, he was surprised when he learned that he would enter the match in the 61st minute.
"At halftime, [Coach Pierre Barrieu] told me I might be going in and to be ready," Agudelo discussed. "When I was warming up, I had time to just rethink. I thought I was prepared and I could do this. As soon as he called my name, I was like, ‘yes!' This is pretty early. I thought I was going to go in later. I was happy."
In the 85th minute, Agudelo combined with 20 year old Stabaek midfielder Mikkel Diskerud on a play that won the game for the Americans.
The duo's game-deciding play could be the start of the youth movement foundation for the US national team during the early stages of the 2014 cycle.
"When the ball got through to me between the two players after Mikkel played me the ball, I was like ‘oh wow, this could be my chance.'" Agudelo described. "I hit the cross bar and I thought I missed my chance. But I saw it go in and hit the roof of the net. I couldn't explain what I was feeling. I covered my mouth. I was very emotional and going crazy. I couldn't believe it that I scored."
The brilliant combination with Diskerud was not a sudden occurrence but rather the product of a solid chemistry that had been building since the two previously cap-less players arrived in Cape Town.
"We definitely started building some chemistry as soon as we landed in South Africa," Agudelo said of his partnership with Diskerud. "We were talking and hanging out in the hotel. We were playing FIFA most of the time and Xbox 360. We had good chemistry as soon as we went in. When we did the combination [on the goal], after I scored he was like ‘just like FIFA in the video game!'"
In addition to Diskerud, Agudelo was also joined by many other young American players including Teal Bunbury, Eric Lichaj, Tim Ream, and fellow U20 international Gale Agbossoumonde. Agudelo is confident that being surrounded by so many other young players helped him in his senior team debut.
"I think it helped that I was with other young players," the Red Bull forward stated. "If I played with older veterans and I was the youngest [by far], I would feel kind of apart. I think that playing with [the younger players], I was able to see they were doing well and they're not that much older than me. I don't see a reason why I can't do well. So it gave me a confidence boost."
In addition to developing chemistry with his teammates, it was also the first time Agudelo had met US head coach Bob Bradley and the whole experience has left him impressed.
"I've only seen him when he watched some of our games with the U-20's," Agudelo said of the US national team coach. "But I hadn't met him face to face. Once I did, I noticed that he's a great coach and a great person. "
As has been much discussed, the goal made Agudelo the youngest player to ever score for the US national team. It's a fact that he learned quickly after the game and one that still leaves him awestruck.
"As soon as I heard that after the game, I was like wow, really? I just made the history books," Agudelo exclaimed. "People are going to be talking about me in like 100 years, maybe. It's crazy that at such a young age, I've already made history."
Just as quickly as he has burst onto the international stage with the US national team, Agudelo rose almost as quickly with the Red Bulls at the tail end of the MLS season. He played twice during the end of the regular season then again in the playoffs where he would notch an assist to Juan Pablo Angel in their quarterfinal loss to San Jose.
"When I first made my debut," Agudelo said of his MLS breakthrough. "I just thought I was ready and there was no reason why I shouldn't be nervous. I started to get some more playing time toward the end then I started in the playoffs. The confidence started to rise. In my first game, I felt I was consistent. In my second playoff game, I got an assist. In the next game in South Africa, I got a goal. So I'm always stepping up the ladder."
So while Agudelo feels that he may have hit his first career turning point, he was helped along the way through coaching and being surrounded by an incredible veteran atmosphere at the Red Bulls that featured Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel, and Rafa Marquez. To a 17 year old, being surrounded by players of that caliber was priceless.
"It's helping me with my learning experience," he said of the veteran presence at the club. "I watched them carefully during training and how they present themselves everyday for practice. I come to them, they come to me. It works both ways. Henry has actually helped me a lot. He's taught me how to take people on better. Also Angel with his finishing, and Marquez with the way I should make my runs [via] the balls he likes to play over the top."
Agudelo also finished his season with a nice meeting with Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe who was very complimentary of the youngster's development in his first professional season.
"Hans talked to me," Agudelo said of the recent meeting. "He was saying that he's very happy with my improvement throughout the season and he thinks that I am maturing as a player. He thinks I am becoming smarter."
With the MLS season and US national team done for 2010, Agudelo has shifted his focus to the US U-20 national team which is now in Atlanta to take on Colombia and Mexico in the Torneo de las Americas this weekend.
The team is in the second half of the cycle which will end at the 2011 U-20 World Cup in Colombia. It's a tournament that has added significance for Agudelo because it will be played in the country he was born.
"I do feel a little more pressure to become a leader but I like that pressure," Agudelo said confidently. "I would love to take this team to the World Cup and play where I was actually born. I have family there still and I would love to get them tickets to come and see me play."
Agudelo also knows that he is part of a U-20 team that could go a long way in next year's World Cup. He was part of the team that won the Milk Cup in July with many top players missing. Now with more top players coming into the fold, the team's potential could be among the best American youth teams ever.
"I think it's extremely good," said of the talent of the US U-20 team. "Gale and I, now that we have made our [national] team appearance, we have experience with Bob Bradley. Now we have more of a leadership role with this team. I feel like we can help the team move forward."
"We have some great players like Tristan Bowen, Sebastian Lletget, Alex Molano," he continued. "This team can be really good. We just have to focus on getting most of the players in camps because we haven't been able to get all the players in together. That's the main thing. We just have to build a team."
As the U-20 World Cup moves closer and top players are profiled in the media, a question that will surely be discussed is Agudelo's choice to play for the US rather than the country of his birth. For Agudelo, he is happy with the US because it was the country he feels gave him the soccer skills to succeed and offered him the chance in the international arena.
"The US gave me an invitation before Colombia did and the US has done a lot of things for me," Agudelo said frankly. "They developed me. I played with the senior team and got my cap, so it should be out of the question which team I will play for. I went through the U17, the U20, and now the senior team. I like the US."
While the end of 2010 saw Agudelo breakthrough for club and country, next year he is focused on returning to the Red Bulls and earning more significant playing time. To do that, however, he will need to not be distracted by the heightened expectations that have been created.
"My goal is to be humble or stay humble and keep my feet on the ground," Agudelo concluded. "I haven't really accomplished that much so far. But I would love to get some more playing time next year compared with the playing time that I got this year."
Agudelo and the US U20 national team will face Colombia on Friday in their first game of the Torneo de las Americas followed by a match against arch-rivals Mexico on Sunday.