Agudelo's Gold Cup opportunity is net loss for other U-20s

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.

5 comments about "Agudelo's Gold Cup opportunity is net loss for other U-20s".
  1. David Sirias, May 20, 2011 at 6:24 p.m.

    Ok ridge finally musters up the courage to justify his role in the fourth estate Kudos. But c'mon just say it. This was bradley's call He screwed up and will give big minutes to a kid on senior team who does not even start for his club team
    Yes JA has talent but until the federation begins to understand that proving up happens at the club level not on the national team based on potential , American soccer , not the team, cant be taken seriously.

  2. Amos Annan, May 20, 2011 at 7:36 p.m.

    Hindsight is ...
    I doubt any columnist has all the inside scoop on this. Agudelo is not Maradona and the U.S. U20's should have won without him, with the superior talent they had.

    Bad stuff happens, especially when you are playing in the other teams home country. Can't win everything.

  3. Eric R., May 21, 2011 at 12:41 p.m.

    Wow! This article sounds like Agudelo is the great soccer player since the cloning of Tab Ramos-McBride! :-)

    Agudelo plays well in int'l competition, but if he's not starting regularly for his club team, I can't blame USSF. Perhaps Agudelo can request a transfer in the offseason to Chivas, NE or DC United where he will start regularly...

    About Guatemala: it happens all the time. Remember a couple of years ago when we beat Spain at the Confederations Cup? Any given Saturday...

  4. Colin Reese, May 21, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.

    If a player is good enough to play for the senior team, then he should play for them. The priority should be for the USMNT to be as good as possible. The focus needs to be on improving the level of the senior team. The US only had one forward before Agudelo and Bunbury received their call-ups, and Altidore is not very good. Agudelo and Bunbury appear to have a better skill set than Altidore, their movement is better, they play well together, and they go directly to goal. Why should Bob Bradley or Thomas Rongen hold someone back from the senior team when the player is needed. We need our best players at each position to play with each other as much as possible so the senior team can improve and start to be a team with skilled players at every position.

  5. Scott Nelson, May 23, 2011 at 4:24 a.m.

    Ridge, why couldn't Agudelo have played for the U20's in the qualiers and THEN gone to the Gold Cup? Players move in and out of the pool all the time at every age group due to form & injury. I agree with some of the other posters that the best players belong on the MNT regardless of age, but why not bring the strongest possible team to the qualifiers?

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