A Heaven-sent Angel
While every American soccer fan was going crazy about David Beckham joining the MLS, the New York Red Bulls were searching for as many stars to sign as possible to prop up the franchise.
First, they signed Claudio Reyna, the American midfielder who tasted European glory for several years before joining the Red Bulls as the next team leader. But Bruce Arena was screaming for a striker who could take advantage of Reyna's game and work in tandem with Josmer Altidore. Arena had a valid reason: last season New York scored more goals than only Columbus, Colorado and Los Angeles. So after searching around the world, he found the right man for the job -- Juan Pablo Angel.
After playing for seven years in England with Aston Villa, the Colombian was losing some ground with the first team. New arrivals like John Carew and Ashley Young, combined with the injuries Angel suffered last season, relegated him to a secondary role he just didn't want to take.
"I believe coming to New York was part of my destiny," said Angel. "I had never thought about playing in the United States, but when the team showed me they were interested, everything changed. I noticed they had been following my career, but mostly I was astonished with their project. They know what they are doing and I can see a bright future here."
If there was any doubt that this marriage was going to work, Angel started scoring in every possible way as soon as he arrived. "Everything worked better than I could have imagined. I adapted quickly and that's why I'm scoring."
Even though it seems that Angel's technique is a step over the rest of the MLS, the Colombian was surprised by the intensity of the league. Many highlight the physical fitness of the players, but he acknowledges there are a lot of gifted players.
Angel also says that playing away from England allows him to avoid several visits to the doctor "Defenders are lot stronger in the Premier League. It is the best league in the world. British soccer is tactically and physically better. It is true that the turf is slower over there, but, anyhow, the game level is higher in England."
Juan Pablo cannot forget the loyal fans that supported him during his seven years with Aston Villa. "I had a very special relationship with the fans since I got there. They instantly loved me! That is why I gave my all in every game," said Angel. "The worst part was that we never really challenged for the title. It was very hard for me, because I came from a team like River Plate, where there is almost an obligation to win a title every single year."
The striker became a star playing for River Plate and maybe that is why Juan Pablo cannot forget his stay in Buenos Aires. "I had great memories from every team I have played for. I try to stay up to date with their seasons. But I have a special bond with River Plate because I've cheered for them since I was a little kid," said Angel. "Plus, Buenos Aires is a big city. The weather is ideal and you can always find something to do. Maybe that's why I had such a hard time in Birmingham. It's always raining, it's dark after four o'clock ... it was hard."
|• Duro: Juan Pablo Angel
Even though it was a difficult transition, the Colombian stayed on top for seven years, scoring 51 goals in 186 games in the Premier League. He had one more year in his contract and coach Martin O'Neill asked him to stay, but Angel wanted a new challenge.
Although he did not know much about the Red Bulls, there were several reasons that pushed him to make the move. "I knew the team had been called the MetroStars and that Red Bull was managing the club now. I knew Bruce Arena and I bought the idea they have for the future," said Juan Pablo. "I never thought I was going to play in the United States, but the opportunity came and the fact that Claudio Reyna was going to be part of the team made the proposal a lot more attractive for me. We knew each other; we came from the same league, so I knew it was going to be easier to come here and adapt."
On the field, when injuries have allowed Reyna to play, the connection has been evident. Angel has earned a spot in the starting lineup and in the first seven games he played, he scored nine goals (he currently has 10 goals in his 13 games). He received the most votes for last month's All-Star Game, and justified his status by being named MVP in the 2-0 win over Celtic. However, the Colombian acknowledges he is not the only person responsible for his success. "I have to thank everybody, from the front office to the coaches, to the players, because they have given me a warm welcome," said Angel.
Fascination with New York City has helped him adapt even better. After living in Medellin and Buenos Aires, his stay in Birmingham was far from ideal for him. Now, in the Big Apple, everything is different because Juan Pablo enjoys all the attractions of one of the biggest cities in the world. Not even the winter can erase his happiness. "I'm used to European winters; I won't have any trouble here. Plus, I'd rather have a coffee near Central Park than a beer in an English pub."
Angel is sure his journey in the United States will be very productive. He repeats over and over he was destined to play in New York and does not regret signing with MLS. He is getting more used to the team day after day and is becoming one of the biggest stars in the league. Angel is feeling so comfortable with the Red Bulls he has set clear goals for the following seasons. "I want the fans to believe in me and enjoy my game," said Juan Pablo. "In the long term, I want to win many titles with the team and make it one of the best in the continent."
Right now, Angel can only dream with the long-term goals and try to solve the team struggles upfront. In their search for a first MLS title, the Red Bulls could very well profit from Angel's scoring streak. For the team and for Arena, Juan Pablo is undoubtedly a heavenly presence.
Alfonso Duro is senior editor and writer of ESPN Deportes La Revista.