The youngest player ever to score for the USA is hoping the friendly against Mexico Wednesday marks a change in his fortunes.
It might seem that Juan Agudelo has returned to MLS and the U.S. national team sooner rather than later, but more than a year searching for stability paints a different picture.
“We always felt that there was going to be an opportunity to stay in touch with him,” said New England coach Jay Heaps when the club announced in late January that it had reacquired his rights. “He’s someone I loved coaching, so when we had the opportunity, we wanted to go for it.”
Just six games into his comeback, which includes a clever flicked goal in a 2-0 defeat of Colorado April 4, he’s also back with the national team. After a 0-0 tie with Columbus Saturday he found out by e-mail he’d be heading to Texas the next day to face Mexico.
“It was a lot of emotions,” Agudelo told reporters. “I’m very grateful, very happy to be back. That’s what I tried to do, just focus on performing well, playing every weekend, starting and getting a lot of touches in games and trying to do everything I can to help out the team. I’m happy to be rewarded for the effort.”
The recall officially ends a wait of more than year, since an appearance against Ukraine in March 2014, but in reality he’s been out of the picture much longer than that. Fortunately, at age 22 and as the father of a baby girl, time is on his side.
He played just 28 minutes in his lone 2012 appearance and a minute less in his only 2013 match. Note to the sharp contrast to his debut, and goal -- just six days shy of his 18th birthday -- against South Africa in November 2010, and another goal against Argentina three months later for his third cap. He played 14 games for the USA in 2011 at the ripe age of 18 and seemed destined for excellence if not stardom.
The national team career stalled, but a trade from Chivas USA to New England midway through the 2013 MLS season signaled a revival. He scored seven goals in 14 games (11 starts) and, with his MLS contract about to expire, he firmly rebuffed the Revs’ attempts to re-sign him. Europe beckoned, but like many young Americans who head overseas, his talent and ambition lost out to the system.
His spotty record with the national team hampered his efforts to find work in England. Had he moved at the end of 2011, with a handful of competitive caps for playing in the Gold Cup, he might have earned a permit outright without the need of an appeal. (Players need to have played in 75 percent of their nation’s competitive matches during the previous two years for the permit to be automatically approved.) But in those two years the appeal process had been toughened considerably, and he fell short.
After two failed attempts to gain a UK work permit with Stoke City -- bookended by a loan spell with FC Utrecht -- he gave up his European dreams, at least for the time being. The Revs, which had retained his MLS rights by offering him a contract prior to his departure, re-signed him in late January.
“We feel he brings a lot of things,” Heaps told the Boston Globe. “On the field, the thing I like most is he’s creative and strong and he has unbelievable feet for a player of his size [6-foot-1, 180 pounds], and enough pace to get past defenders.
“He’s comfortable with everyone, and that’s half the battle when you bring new players in. We’re very, very fortunate he’s been here before. He’s versatile and aggressive, and one of his strengths is he holds defenders off. We like that type of dynamic play at all three forward positions.”
Agudelo has played in each of the Revs’ six games and if selected against Mexico will earn his 19th cap. He won’t get the opportunity against Mexico to rejoin Jozy Altidore, who is suspended. They were paired up often prior to the dismissal of former head coach Bob Bradley, and after the coaching change Agudelo replaced Altidore as a sub in four consecutive games.
Since then he’s been all but invisible. In the meantime, Julian Green has scored in a World Cup. Gyasi Zardes has grown from Homegrown hopeful to MLS starter and national team debutant. Both of them are in the squad to face Mexico. With just three caps in the past four years, Agudelo has some catching up to do. The next Gold Cup is less than three months away.
“I’m going to try and do everything I can to show what I got and show that I should stay in the pool,” Agudelo said. “It’s a short little call-up, because we return on Thursday, but I’m trying to make the most out of it.”