By Paul Gardner
My congratulations to Juan Agudelo on escaping the soccer confusion that reigns at the Red Bulls. It has been blatantly clear for about a year now that there was no future for Agudelo at the Bulls -- a club that showed no evidence whatever of knowing what to do with a young player with Latin talent.
I stated firmly, last October, that Agudelo needed to get away from the Red Bulls if he was to develop as a player. There was nothing particularly clever or insightful in that opinion, because the Red Bulls were making it insultingly obvious that they thought very little of Agudelo’s skills.
I had conversations with members of the Red Bull coaching staff and, to my surprise, found them anything but enthusiastic about Agudelo. When, in late October, Hans Backe sent Agudelo into a game with just 1 minute and 45 seconds remaining, the message was brutally clear. I was merely underlining the obvious.
Also to be considered was what seemed to be a concerted campaign from both Backe and Thierry Henry to discourage journalists from praising Agudelo. Henry even accused the journalists of endangering Agudelo’s career by inflating his ego. Well, that can happen -- but it can also happen that a young player becomes dejected because he is being neglected -- particularly by his own coaching staff.
When he is being neglected while at the same time an enormous amount of time and attention is being paid to a rival for his place -- in this case Luke Rodgers, who ran into visa problems for reasons never adequately explained by the Red Bulls -- then the writing is unmistakably on the wall.
Yet it has taken this long for the Red Bulls to unload a player they manifestly do not want. Why would that be? I would suggest because the Red Bull organization has no clear idea what it is up to. Virtually all of its player trades, for over a year now, have had an air of improvisation about them; the worst ones reek of panic.
Planning? The development of a team with a style of play? The diligent assembly of players who might complement one another?
No, none of that. Last year’s laughable fiasco over the signing of Dwayne De Rosario tells the story. DeRo -- probably the best signing this Red Bull management has ever made -- lasted only three months in a Red Bull uniform. Then it was inexplicably discovered that the Red Bulls needed a goalkeeper, but needed to free up some money in the salary cap to get one. The result of this sudden realization about goalkeepers was that DeRo had to be traded -- to D.C. United. A goalkeeper was brought in from Germany at a highly inflated salary, who turned out to be of no help whatever, neither good nor bad, just very ordinary.
To put the seal on what has to be the worst, most unprofessionally handled deal ever pulled off in MLS, the Red Bulls accepted, in return for De Rosario, one Dax McCarty. Enough said.
That deal tells you all you need to know about the chaotic decision-making that passes for strategic planning at the Red Bulls. Uncertainty rules, and of course it involves an inability to assess the potential of a Hispanic player like Agudelo, leading to much dithering and hesitation over whether to trade him or not.
The Red Bulls GM Erik Soler is acquiring a quite formidable reputation for issuing agonizingly silly public pronouncements, and his attempts to portray the Agudelo trade as a reluctant move by the Red Bulls can be added to his achievements in that field.
“It had become clear,” Soler stated, possibly with a straight face, “that he thought that his chance to develop as a player would maybe get better chances if he played somewhere else.” Well, good heavens now, where on earth could Agudelo have got that idea from?
Soler plows on: “We still don’t think that’s the case ... We want to support Juan but he wants to try something new and we’ll give him that opportunity ...” So we’re now presented with a rosy view of the kindly, magnanimous Red Bull management, almost in tears as they part with a player they’ve never shown any great effort in putting on the field. Thirteen starts in two and bit seasons shows not so much caution on the coaching side of things, as disinterest.
The trade, says Soler, is all Agudelo’s idea. The Red Bulls have only agreed to it with great reluctance. But trying to blame Agudelo for the move is merely a rather uncharitable PR ploy for the fans.
The crocodile tears from the Red Bulls cannot wash away the stark fact that Agudelo’s wish to be traded was something that was forced upon him by the Red Bulls mean-spirited policy of giving him only driblets of playing time.
We have not heard the last of the Agudelo saga by any means. He now goes to Chivas USA, which -- with its Latino-type name -- sounds like it ought to be the right team for him. But Chivas USA is not a Latin team, hasn’t been for years. The coach, Robin Fraser, is not Hispanic and in terms of style the team is as pseudo-European as any other team in MLS. It seems to me quite possible that Agudelo’s eventual development as a player may have to involve a move to Mexico, or back to his Colombian roots.