Juan Agudelo on road to recovery with nothing to lose ahead of Gold Cup
Every player's career has a certain velocity attached to it. For some, like Christian Pulisic, it's like breaking the sound barrier -- a place where talent, work ethic and circumstance all combine to create a smooth, rapid ascent.
For others, there are injuries, career choices that end in blind alleys, and a host of other factors that can bring a player's progress to a halt. Regaining momentum can turn into a herculean task. Juan Agudelo is a player who falls into that category.
Agudelo, 24, is one of those players who seems like he's been around forever, and with good reason: he is now in his eighth professional season. Along the way, the Colombian-born forward has certainly gone through the gears, just not always in the sequence that one might expect. And at times, he's grinded them.
As Agudelo sits down with ESPN FC, it is clear he has learned a lot from his career, as well as being a father to 2-year-old daughter Catalina. He's a glass-half-full guy, which is in keeping with his striker's mentality. (After all, forwards need to be optimists, sniffing out opportunities when it appears there are none.)
At the moment, Agudelo's career is on the up, shifting into overdrive again at last. His seven goals with the New England Revolution this season already match a career single-season high; he's back in the national team frame as well, part of Bruce Arena's Gold Cup squad. Agudelo still has ambitions of being part of the U.S. World Cup roster. At present, that fourth forward spot seems there for the taking.
"I'm not thinking about the fourth spot," Agudelo said. "I'm thinking ahead to the second spot or third spot, because I would love to be coming off the bench in the World Cup or possibly even starting. I'm not looking to set my goals low. I like to set them high. If something goes wrong at least maybe I'm in the third spot. I'm positively thinking that I need to keep going with this streak that I've started off well with in 2017, and hopefully finish off a really strong season."
Yet as good as things are going at the moment, there is a lingering sense of "What if?" surrounding him. Agudelo was Pulisic before there was Pulisic; the Revolution forward didn't have anything close to Pulisic's resume at club level, but the sense of hope was there.
Those expectations reached a crescendo on March 26, 2011, when a then-18-year-old Agudelo scored the equalizer in a 1-1 draw against Argentina. After the final whistle, Agudelo found himself walking up to Lionel Messi -- the Argentine superstar barely acknowledged his opponent, not that the youngster cared.
"It was pretty cool being in high school at the time and telling my friends, 'Hey, I shook Lionel Messi's hand and scored against him. Here is the picture for the proof,'" he said. "I didn't know if the opportunity was going to present itself again. I think I just went up to him and in Spanish and said, 'Man, you're an unbelievable player.' And he shook my hand.
"He was pretty upset about the tie. And he was like, 'Thank you.' A player like that, even the smallest acknowledgement from a player of his level was unbelievable."
Agudelo's rise continued from there, but it lacked a stable foundation. When he suited up for the U.S. in the 2011 Gold Cup final against Mexico, it marked his 10th international appearance. By comparison, Agudelo had made just 14 league and playoff appearances at club level for the New York Red Bulls.
It didn't take long for the foundation to crack. In 2012, frustration at a lack of playing time led to a trade to Chivas USA.
"I was always curious as to why would a team like New York just let this guy go and let him walk out the door if he was going to be an important part of their future," ESPN TV analyst Alejandro Moreno, who was part of that Chivas USA team, said.
"Then when he came to Chivas, I think what I saw was an explanation for why New York did that; a physically talented player who perhaps didn't have a clear understanding as to what it took to be a true professional. He was still very young back then."
A short stint with the Revs was followed by a transfer to Stoke City, but when Agudelo couldn't secure a work permit he was loaned to FC Utrecht. The work permit issues saw him sit idle for the better part of six months as his hopes of playing in England were finally dashed. He ultimately returned to the Revs.
"Sometimes happiness in life is just playing on the field, no matter where you are," he said. "I did go through a stretch of time where I was just waiting for things to happen. What was most important to me was my happiness, which was just playing on the field."
That contentment has proven difficult to find, however. Since returning in 2015, injuries have hampered Agudelo's attempts to find consistency. On those occasions when he did find his best form, the season ended at the worst possible time.
So looking back, did it all come too fast? Did the expectations weigh too heavy?
"I don't look back and think, 'I wish things would have come a little bit slower,'" he said. "It wouldn't have made me the player I am now. And I don't think in the past that I let things get to my head. I didn't really care about anything, other than just to be on the field and to have fun.
"Some people might say, 'Oh, you let it get to your head too much,' but that's just not the player that I am or the person that I am, even today. I don't let any news or advertisements or sponsors get to my head. When I'm on the field, I don't think about anything like that. Sometimes I don't even think about my family when I'm on the field."
But when pressed, Agudelo admitted he might have made some decisions differently. Of his trade to Chivas USA, Agudelo said he should have ridden out his difficult spell with the Red Bulls.
"I know it was important for me to play, but it may have been a little bit too fast to push to switch to another team when possibly things were going to change the next year," he said.
It is certainly a more mature Agudelo that is attempting to make his mark with the national team this month. He recognizes "I'm not 17 anymore" and as such takes much better care of his body than he used to. His time spent playing in midfield at club level has added some versatility to his game; Agudelo has also shown more leadership with the Revs, along with more focus on the present.
"That's one thing we continue to talk about, staying in the now, not getting those expectations get too high, too soon, or look back too far," New England manager Jay Heaps said. "We always talk about winning at the club level, be a leader at the club level. The national team call-ups, the national team situation, they will all take care of themselves if you're doing what you need to be doing every day. We talk about the now all the time."
Yet there is still the sense that Agudelo needs to deliver more, especially on the scoresheet. And the injury issues that have plagued him throughout his career hit him again when he injured his shoulder back in May.
"[Agudelo] is a physically talented guy, an imposing guy that you look at his size and his strength and he has enough speed and enough ability with the ball that you would think he would be able to dominate," Moreno said.
"You would see that in moments, but you wouldn't see that with consistency. I think over the years that has improved, but I don't think it has improved dramatically because it's still a guy that we still don't see enough consistent performances. We don't see enough of him to truly solidify himself as a superstar in MLS, never mind an important player for the U.S. national team.
"It's not enough to be physically fit. It's not enough to show up every day with the right mindset. You have to produce on the weekend. I don't know if he's been able to match those things consistently enough, and with any sort of continuity. If we're still wondering what the best of Juan Agudelo looks like, then maybe we've already seen the best of Juan Agudelo."
Of course, there is nothing Agudelo can do to change the past, even as the expectations that were placed on him as a teenager continue to follow him, albeit on a lesser scale. The Gold Cup and MLS games that follow will reveal much.
"Expectations, they came to me, but they're not really there that much anymore," Agudelo said. "But they didn't make a difference. Pressure, if I'm not prepared as a player, as in physical stamina, that's the only time you feel pressure. When you are prepared and you've done everything right the entire week, or in the previous month to get your body prepared for that game, there's zero pressure that you feel."
For perhaps the first time since that night against Argentina, Agudelo feels like he has nothing to lose.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.