MLS: A guest of Pele and opponent of Neymar, Agudelo is ready for more exciting experiences

MLS: A guest of Pele and opponent of Neymar, Agudelo is ready for more exciting experiences

If it wasn’t for his mother’s intervention, Juan Agudelo might have missed out on a career as a professional footballer.

“I used to play four sports as a kid: roller hockey, baseball, basketball, and European football,” he said. “I wasn’t actually going to continue playing soccer, I was going to play basketball because I was getting a lot of praise in my middle school, and getting invited to some high schools to play basketball.

“My mom actually told me, ‘OK there’s a practice on like Thursday, this is the sport you’re going to pursue’. I had that choice between the basketball and the soccer ball, and I ended up choosing the soccer ball.”

Some may argue it was fate that Agudelo chose football, pushing him towards a unique path in which he had made his senior international debut by seventeen, and scored against a Lionel Messi led Argentina in only his second appearance.

“At seventeen I felt like I was in a twenty-two year old’s body, living that same lifestyle at such a young age,” he said. “It made me grow up with things and come into a realisation about this profession early on.”

Forced to display maturity beyond his years, Agudelo was roundly hailed as his country’s next great hope. That cold night in Seattle was not his first daunting occasion though, that arrived a year prior, when Pele was watching.

“It was a tribute match for him with Millonarios in Colombia,” he said. “I was training with [Juan Carlos] Osorio who had been the first team coach with the New York Red Bulls. He invited me to play as he had moved on to coach in Colombia. It was a really big honour to meet him [Pele], shake his hand, and to have him watch me play. I still have those photos in my room.”

Elsewhere in his home is a shirt belonging to Neymar – another unique memento from his career. That was acquired when Agudelo’s New York Red Bulls hosted Santos in 2011. The pair embraced at full-time before exchanging jerseys. Viewed as the brightest prospects their respective countries had to offer, it was a heady time for Agudelo. He was expected to tread the same path as the Brazilian, and move to Europe for a greater test.

Agudelo did venture to Europe in 2014, but red tape stopped him ever playing a competitive minute for Stoke City. Unable to secure a work permit, he bounced around the continent, in a state of limbo, playing over a dozen games for FC Utrecht. Eventually returning home last year, he had enjoyed highs and lows across the Atlantic; scoring goals for Utrecht, but failing to secure his dream move to England.

Now eighteen months into his second spell with New England, to watch Agudelo is to see a player slowly coming into his own. On course for his best season in MLS, the forward is no longer burdened by expectation, and that allows him to live in the moment.

“I had never really looked at it that way, but I think it’s a great way to put it,” he said. “I think now I’m focused on helping out the team and winning every single game to help get us to the playoffs. It’s still my goal [to play abroad], but I’m not thinking, 'I hope someone is seeing me make this play and scouting me’. It’s in the back of my mind, but not when I’m on the field.”

Another facet of Agudelo’s development has involved becoming more instinctual as a forward. In his relative youth it was hard to always make the right choice, and with experience he has learned to trust his instincts more.

“Understanding my role and my strengths has been really important,” he said. “To be honest before, once I was in the box I was thinking what the best play is. Now I’m figuring out the best thing to do sometimes is not think so much, and just get a shot off and take my chances. That’s ultimately what I get paid to do.”

Certainly, any struggles during his career have not down to a lack of effort. Talk to the coaches in New England and they’ll confirm that Agudelo is always trying to do extra work.

“I’m there before training trying to get some technique on my shoots, then after training,” he said. “At times I even did it too much to the point that there was some injuries happening maybe because of over-exertion on the training pitch. I try to do as much as I can, but I learned there is a limit to what your body can take.”

Some may consider him the oldest 23-year-old American player in the game. Calm in the box, and with his tone of voice, it raises slightly with mention of his daughter Catalinia, born in February last year.

“Yeah man definitely, she’s the number one thing I think about,” he said. “It’s very motivational. You want to provide her whatever she needs. I know she’s going to want some things when she gets older as all children do. I just want to provide that for her when she grows up. She’s basically my life, she’s the only thing I look forward to after training.”

Still only 23, Agudelo is now able to reflect somewhat on his eventful journey in professional soccer. Experiencing more in six years than some do in a lifetime, it has fostered an appreciation for the experiences he has been gifted, as well as a belief that there is still more to come from his career.

“Even at school I didn’t want to be unoriginal or something you see every day,” Agudelo said. “I wanted to be different. I think my career has been different. I got my first goal with the full national team under Bob Bradley at seventeen. I was the youngest to ever score for the US at one point.

“I was training with Liverpool and Celtic, I was going through a lot of things when I was younger. Being back in MLS, on the national team, scoring, it’s a roller-coaster. I’m always looking for the positive things in my life, and I like the roller-coaster that God has put on for me.”