FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Destiny is a word that could have aptly explained a young Colombian-American forward named Juan Agudelo at the start of the decade. There he was, the hometown kid from the neighborhood, the familiar face who kicked the ball around the block, the one who went by “Johnny,” stepping into the worldwide spotlight, rising above the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Whether it was when a 17-year-old Agudelo buried his chance to beat South Africa halfway across the world in Cape Town, or when an 18-year-old Agudelo equalized against Lionel Messi and Argentina in his backyard at the Meadowlands, the reality surpassed imagination.
The promising peers who played with him in the New York Red Bulls Academy, like current Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis – whose relationship with Agudelo dates back even before that – could only watch in awe, from seats in Red Bull Arena or the New Meadowlands Stadium, as a childhood friend and academy teammate achieved his boyhood dream before even becoming a man.
“He loves the game, first of all,” Davis said. “He loves playing the game, he loves watching it. We used to watch so many YouTube videos of these players, Brazilian forwards.
“And I just remember, he would watch these guys and then, in training, do all their tricks and moves. He has much so swag when he plays, and he loves that side of the game. He just really enjoys it, and that’s when he’s at his best.”
Measuring success for an outlier such as Agudelo is complex, fodder for the type of water cooler conversation that permeates throughout sports culture.
His career encapsulates a collection of once-promising national team prospects who broke through at the start of the decade, in a league that was starkly different than MLS today. MLS clubs had not yet embraced the mutual benefit of cost-effectively investing into academies – producing players that could be sold for profit – rather than aging superstars, while also replenishing the U.S. national team.
Agudelo is a part of the generational gap between U.S. Soccer’s “Project 2010” group led by Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (both retired) and the present-day future headlined by Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams (both under 21) – a void of fully-realized talent that was a major culprit in the U.S.’s first failed World Cup qualification since 1986.
Given the magic he conjured up from late 2010 to early 2011, it becomes hard not to linger on the what-ifs of Agudelo’s career, the biggest one being: what if the Red Bulls had their current emphasis on playing young players when Agudelo broke through?
“It was never – no matter if I trained like Messi, I was never going to play over [Thierry] Henry,” Agudelo, now a converted midfielder for the New England Revolution, said. “So, it was, it was a tough time. I was just trying to get better in training because I knew I was going to come into games but, it’s not like I was going to be a consistent starter.”
“There were situations where I was like, I know what a good player is. I compare myself to a player in my position, if I think I’m training better, if I think I should get more playing time, it’s like, yeah, I should. But, with the way the league is, with the separation of salaries, if you’re going to pay somebody that much money, there’s really nothing you can do.
“So, that’s where I was mature enough to understand that, but also, I was mature because, I was just like, ‘Whatever, I’ll just try to get better every day.’ See if when he moves, or when somebody else moves, or if I go to another team, something changes.”
That something changed in May 2012. To this day a best friend, Davis recalls the car ride to Newark Liberty International Airport, after the scarcely-utilized, 19-year-old Agudelo had been traded from the Red Bulls to one of the worst organizations in MLS at the time, Chivas USA.
“I just remember thinking, like trying to put myself in his shoes, and being like, ‘I can’t even imagine being him right now,’” Davis, then a high school senior with a scholarship to Duke, said. “Like, leaving home, also getting to go to L.A. and play for Chivas. He’ll get a lot of time there and, if he does well, the world’s his oyster, basically.”
The world never quite opened up to Agudelo, though. Leaving the Red Bulls was a move that had to be done – he needed a change of scenery, a team that would allow him time to develop on the field – and the trade was ultimately out of his control. But Agudelo quickly learned what he had with the Red Bulls, and how much harder it was to garner attention with his performance without the caliber of talent he had in New York.
“I came to the realization, right, I was at a very good team at Red Bull,” Agudelo said. “And, you’re not going to get that many shots, you’re not going to get chances, if your team isn’t as good. So, your kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m better at getting better. But, in games, like, I’m defending most of the time, doesn’t matter what team you play for.”
After the plane took off for Los Angeles, somewhere along a trailblazing, tumultuous few years that took him to Europe and back to MLS, Agudelo lost what little child-like love he had left for soccer. The main explanation is, he grew up, like everyone does. Now a husband and father, it isn’t as simple as before, when all he cared about was watching videos of Brazilian forwards like Robinho, when he told his mom he would play for free.
Even though his new, foreign role in the midfield may seem experimental, Agudelo speaks about his time as a forward in the past-tense, like it’s truly behind him, and critically looks back at the mindset he had in that position.
“I wish I had more selfish bones in my body when I was playing that forward role,” Agudelo said. “I wasn’t, I didn’t have a forward mentality. I had more of an assist guy mentality. There were just a lot of people that were a bit more savage, to just shoot whenever they see the goal close. And, deflections go in. That’s my life lesson.”
For someone with the attacking flair and free spirit of Agudelo, this may seem surprising. Such players are normally too careless, not too careful about wasting opportunities, but the numbers bear out his sentiment.
In seven full seasons playing as a winger and forward in MLS, Agudelo never finished top 30 in the league in shots taken. For comparison, in the two seasons with his highest shot totals (2015 and 2017), Agudelo still recorded less shots than former Red Bull Felipe, who was playing as a two-way midfielder.
Now, Agudelo is a two-way midfielder himself; a changed player and a changed man. Sitting next to him in the dimly-lit locker room at Gillette Stadium presented a paradoxical dichotomy. In one sense, he fell short: wrong place, wrong time, opportunities missed. But, in another sense, he is at peace, and at 26-years-old, with a level of perspective few ever attain, could still have so much more to give to soccer.