Juan Agudelo is one of my favorite players. I've been a fan of his ever since seeing him play for the United States U-20 team in the 2010 Milk Cup. His technical ability and confidence on the soccer field was obvious from the first time I saw him.
Just six months after that inconsequential youth tournament, Bob Bradley gave him a shock call-up to the senior team. In his first cap, and at only 17-years-old, Agudelo became the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history. Naturally the hype machine kicked into high gear and he was labelled by many to be the next big thing in American soccer.
Unfortunately, his club career never ascended to the heights many imagined. His stops in MLS included several mediocre years with the New York Red Bulls, followed by two trades to Chivas USA and New England Revolution. At Chivas, Juan performed surprisingly well for a terrible team. Then came a move to New England where he enjoyed the best stretch of his career, scoring seven goals in just fourteen games.
An undeniable talent with average career statistics, Juan decided to make the leap to Europe and test his talents in the English Premier League. His decision to sign with Stoke City at the time seemed like a poor one based on projected playing time and Stoke in general just not being a very good team. However, his choice would turn into a catastrophic one for entirely different reasons.
Several work permit denials and a short loan stint to the Eredivisie later, Agudelo played in a total of fourteen matches in an eighteen month span. Stoke released him from his contract in May 2014 making him a free agent.
This is where the story takes a turn for the bizarre.
Stories and rumors about Agudelo fell silent after a few weeks of him becoming a free agent. No one knows exactly where or what he was up to for the next eight months. The comparisons to the most famous US soccer hype victim Freddy Adu came pouring in. From time to time the question would repetitively be brought up on social media - "where is Juan Agudelo?" - until finally in January he decided to return to the New England Revolution. The club where he had a successful past and comfortable surroundings.
To his credit, Agudelo kept up with his physical fitness during his eight-month hiatus. Making his transition back to the professional soccer player life much easier, all he had to worry about was getting back to match fitness. Eight matches into the MLS season, coupled with a very successful return cap with the USMNT, he is finally reaching full stride.
Amazingly, he is still only 22-years-old. After a tumultuous two years, Agudelo is back on the track to fulfilling his immense potential. His reemergence comes at an opportune time for the USMNT. With the Gold Cup rapidly approaching, Klinsmann is on the lookout for talented strikers to compliment Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey.
The current striker options behind Altidore and Dempsey are shaky, to say the least. Aron Johannsson does have six goals this season, but he has been struggling with injuries since before the World Cup. Chris Wondolowski is well, Wondo. He scores goals at the club level, but when put against decent international competition he is rendered ineffective. Gyasi Zardes had a great 2014 club season playing with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. To be fair, Hat Trick Rick probably could have scored 20 goals playing with those two. He's not a bad option, but his technical ability has let him down constantly in the admittedly small sample size we have of him at the international level.
With options at a minimum, if Agudelo can stay healthy and continue to get better as the season progresses he has a solid chance of making the Gold Cup roster. Klinsmann's main critique of the USMNT before becoming manager was our player's poor first touches. As an analyst for ESPN he made that a central point of focus in that team's failure to beat Ghana. If he's true to his word, how can he not have this type of ability on his roster?