U.S. soccer fans have long been waiting for their first true native son. Players have come and gone with all the hype, from Kyle Rote Jr. to Claudio Reyna.
Most recently, it was Freddy Adu. As a 14-year-old he burst on the scene, barely able to shave and needing a ride to practice because he didn’t have a license. Plenty of players have come with acclaim, most to fizzle and some to have solid careers. But none has become a global star. Until now. Maybe.
Last Saturday, before 79,936 fans at New Meadowlands Stadium, 18-year-old Juan Agudelo scored the equalizing goal in a 1-1 tie between the U.S. and Argentina.
Making just his third international appearance for the U.S., Agudelo has already scored two goals, including the lone goal in a 1-0 win in South Africa in November. He also drew a penalty kick in his second appearance for the U.S.
“For any player, you can tell whenever he gets on the field if he has confidence,” national team coach Bob Bradley said. “He has a knack for scoring, for getting goals.”
Born in Colombia, Agudelo grew up in New Jersey and joined the Red Bulls youth program as a teenager. He was a ball boy for the team as he progressed through the club’s academy system. Last March, Agudelo was signed by the team as a homegrown player. By the end of the season, he was starting in place of an injured Thierry Henry and assisted on a goal in the playoffs.
He scored his first MLS goal two weeks ago in the season opening win over Seattle. Right now, he’s in form and the Red Bulls and Bradley are set to benefit.
“Day in and day out, I try to work hard,” Agudelo said. “In training, I try to work and the coaches recognize that.”
Every couple years, some teen prodigy is anointed as the next Pele and the next face of American soccer. But even the likes of Landon Donovan, the best player ever produced by the United States, has failed to make a dent with his European soccer career and is playing in MLS for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Donovan is highly respected across the globe but fails to register among the great players of his generation. But all too often, the young stars move overseas prematurely or quickly develop a complex that stunts their growth.
Donovan said it was incumbent “on all of us to not let that happen” with Agudelo.
The Red Bulls have brought Agudelo along slowly, letting him train and get used to professional play before thrusting the then 17-year-old into a prominent role with the team. Agudelo has also benefitted from training and playing alongside Henry, one of the best players of his generation. The two have formed, in the words of Agudelo, a “friendship” as the teenage has watched and learned the tricks of the game from a world class forward.
Three years ago, the Red Bulls developed another teenage sensation in Jozy Altidore. The powerful forward was sold to Spanish team Villarreal for a record MLS transfer fee but Altidore struggled to find playing time and has been loaned by the club twice to get more experience. Altidore failed to score in last summer’s World Cup but he played without a true strike partner and Agudelo could help take the pressure off Altidore to score goals.
“He’s a good player and for me, he’s a pure football player,” Altidore said. “He came on and really helped us big-time.”
But the concern now for the Red Bulls and for the national team is that Agudelo progresses the right way and doesn’t burn out. In 2004, a then 20-year-old Eddie Johnson scored five goals in his first three appearances for the national team. Quickly heralded by the media as a rising star, Johnson made a move to the English Premier League but the star touting proved premature. Johnson has shown sporadic form at best for his club and has scored just seven goals in the 39 appearances for the United States since his hot start.
Agudelo must be handled the right way and surrounded by the right people so that he can shine and mature into the United States’ first American star. It’s something that even the teenager acknowledges needs to take place so he can take the next step, which he’ll take tonight when the United States play Paraguay in Nashville.
“I need to stay grounded,” Agudelo said. “Because right now, I’m feeling like I’m in space!