BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, June 7, 2011
With the US ready to open its 2011 Gold Cup Tuesday night against Canada, New York Red Bulls' forward Juan Agudelo is ready to provide a boost to the team's attack in his first international tournament.
Agudelo, 18, broke into the team last November when he scored the game winner in a 1-0 victory over South Africa. Now he finds himself a key part of the group of young forwards that US head coach Bob Bradley has turned to following the 2010 World Cup.
"I'm really happy," Agudelo told YA. "I love this team. I feel like I've been doing really well and playing my game here. I'm relaxed."
Agudelo and San Jose's Chris Wondolowski are the new contingent of MLS forwards that will join long term veterans Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey on the Gold Cup team. So far, Agudelo has enjoyed playing with this squad as they all represent an attack minded group that fits his personal playing style.
"It's a pleasure playing with those guys," Agudelo discussed. "They're really good players. It's good because they can see what you're trying to do and they're always looking to go forward. That's what I like about the national team. It's fast thinking and always looking to score and attack."
Entering into this Gold Cup, Agudelo is seeing an increased role from last season with the Red Bulls where he didn't begin seeing meaningful minutes until the end of the season. This season he has been either starting or has been coming off the bench as an early substitute for head coach Hans Backe.
The club has been grooming him along slowly as he competes with Luke Rogers for the second striker position to compliment Thierry Henry. Agudelo knows that he still young and needs to improve but he appreciates the national team experience when compared to the rigorous structure at his club.
"It hasn't been the best," Agudelo said of his season. "There are things that I need to improve on and that's what I take into consideration. But here [with the national team] it seems like I am learning things a lot faster. I'm playing my game here."
While Agudelo's season has been off to a slower start than he would have liked there have been moments of brilliance, such has his highlight reel goals against Seattle in the opening game of the season and the spectacular strike on the road against DC United.
He has also developed a good relationship with teammate Thierry Henry who was a teenage standout before he became one of the best players in the world. Henry has been active in talking to Agudelo about how to handle success at such an early age.
"He's a good guy," Agudelo said of Henry. "His locker is right next to my locker. He talks to me all the time. He encourages me. He's kind of been in my shoes when he was little."
One of Agudelo's goals is to stay focused while he continues to develop. It was less than 12 months ago when he was just a 17 year old MLS reserve team player, but during that time he has grown into a US national team starter and one of the faces of MLS. He has already scored twice for the national team including a second-half equalizer against Argentina in a 1-1 draw.
The Colombian-born Agudelo handles this by simply concentrating on his personal development as a player.
"I feel like I've been doing really well and playing my game," he discussed. "I just have to keep this up. I can't let up. I have to stay focused. I'll always be focused. I'm just going to keep on improving."
Another potential distraction for Agudelo has been the consistent rumors of high profile European teams that are said to be interested in buying him from the Red Bulls and the league. In just 2011, rumors of Atletico Madrid and Roma have circulated.
Agudelo is aware of the rumors and tries to tune them out but the interest has helped him with confidence at times because making the move overseas is in his long-term interest.
"Most of the time I tune it out," Agudelo said of the rumors. "Maybe sometimes I use it to get confidence in the games. Sometimes I think about that stuff but most of the time I tune it out and let my agent deal with those things but eventually, like every other young player I want to play at the highest level – which is in Europe."
Following the Gold Cup, Agudelo will return to New Jersey where he will join the Red Bulls. Earlier in the year, it was mentioned that he could also be part of the US U-20 national team at the World Cup in his native Colombia.
The U-20 team did not qualify for the World Cup after losing the quarterfinal game 2-1 to Guatemala in Guatemala City. Agudelo did not take part in that tournament because Bob Bradley felt it was better for him to be part of the senior team during their friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay.
The loss hurt for Agudelo because he has spent a lot of time with the US U-20 team this past cycle and was very close to his teammates. A part of him felt as if he let his friends on the team down.
"It was tough," Agudelo admitted. "I felt like a part of me should have been there. It was tough watching the game. I was pretty upset. I talked to the guys after and I apologized that I couldn't go out there and fight with them. It was all of our decisions. They thought it would be best for me as a player. Looking back, I feel bad because those were some of my best friends. I didn't like seeing their faces so upset after that game."
For now, however, Agudelo remains happy to lead the team in the 2011 Gold Cup as he takes the stage in his first major competition for the United States.
One of the things that is on his mind is the potential to meet Mexico in the final in Pasadena for his first game against the team's biggest arch-rival. The US-Mexico games have seen many American players emerge as heroes.
Whether it has been Landon Donovan's goal in the 2002 World Cup or Michael Bradley's two-goal effort in the 2009 qualifier, it has always been the biggest of stages for US players, and Agudelo hopes to have his opportunity in the near future.
"It'd be awesome. I soon as I hear [US vs. Mexico] my eyes light up because so many great games have happened between these two teams," Agudelo concluded. "It's always a battle. It's not really too much pressure. We're capable of it. It's a great team and the chemistry is good. In the Gold Cup this team has always shown that it can perform."