New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo is a possible selection for the Gold Cup in part because U.S. Soccer believed his talents weren’t needed for
the Concacaf U-20 qualifications, which produced a shocking loss to Guatemala that deprived the Americans of a place in the world championships.
On Monday, U.S. coach Bob Bradley will announce his roster for the Spain friendly June 4 and the Gold Cup that quickly follows.
Not many MLS players are expected to be on the roster, but the dearth of quality forwards currently in the U.S. pool – we won’t debate here the merits or lack thereof of Herculez Gomez, Robbie Findley, Jozy Altidore, Kenny Cooper, etc. – and his encouraging performances with the national team to date have focused a spotlight on Agudelo. A naturalized U.S. citizen, the Colombian native has the strength, speed, touch, and savvy tailor-made to breach defenses and put balls in the net.
In March, the Red Bull teen played for the national team in friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay, rather than accompany the U.S. U-20s to Guatemala for the Concacaf qualifying tournament. That rash decision has bit U.S. Soccer in the butt, as in the quarterfinals the Americans lost, 2-1, to the host nation, which celebrated wildly its vanquishing of the U.S. and first-ever qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Former head coach Thomas Rongen has, predictably, taken the fall for the U-20 failure, which is how these things work. But taking for granted that the U-20s could qualify without Agudelo marks a serious miscalculation, regardless of how many goals, if any, Agudelo could have scored in the qualifying competition or in the decisive match against Guatemala in particular. With or without the ball, either as a target or a decoy, he’s a force whose absence was felt.
“It sends the wrong message to go into any competition without your best player,” said a coach with experience in both MLS and U.S. Soccer, and in those words is a philosophy preached constantly by Bradley; that in any moment in any game, one move, one play, one player, can decide the outcome. Against Guatemala, in a raucous, passionate Mateo Flores Stadium used often by Guatemala’s senior team for friendlies and qualifiers, the U.S. missed a few chances and conceded two goals on defensive miscues. Adios.
Whether or not Agudelo is the “best” player of the current U-20 pool isn’t the point. He’s one who can make a difference, and seems capable of carrying that ability across every level of competition he’s encountered so far. The Red Bulls moved him up from their academy team once they got a measure of his abilities, and U.S. Soccer sped him along the development curve into the senior team, but somehow forgot to incorporate the cost – not only to him, but his young teammates – of missing out on the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
I can’t believe it was Rongen’s idea for Agudelo to skip the U-20 qualifiers to play for the national team, but he agreed to it, and so he paid the price.
So will more than a dozen young players who surely could have gained valuable experience playing against their peers from around the world in Colombia. A few, like D.C. United’s Perry Kitchen, will get more playing time in MLS this summer by missing the U-20s, but only he, Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia), Zarek Valentin (Chivas USA), and Omar Salgado (Vancouver) are the exceptions who play regularly for their MLS teams. In my book, that’s a net loss.
There could have been battle royale had U.S. Soccer suggested Agudelo play both in the Gold Cup (June) and FIFA U-20 World Cup (August). Including training camps, he might have missed two months of MLS play. It’s unlikely the federation would have placed that burden on him, but again, if it chose to pick him for the Gold Cup, what message would that have sent to his U-20 teammates headed to South America?
It’s quite possible the U-20s would have failed to qualify with Agudelo on the team, but at least they and U.S. Soccer would have known they gave it their best shot, which is a lesson any young player can’t be taught often enough. The players and Rongen can be blamed for not getting the job done, but as often the case in youth soccer, there were other adults who screwed it up.