Juan Agudelo speaks quietly, so as not to startle his newborn daughter. He isn’t 18 anymore. He’s a father now, and engaged to be married. Yet in some ways he is now, at 22, back to where he started four years ago. In other ways he’s worse off.
Then, he was the most exciting young striker to come through the American game since Jozy Altidore – or maybe he was more exciting than even Altidore, for he was just as athletic but faster, and blessed with a cotton-soft touch and a fine technique. Now, he has just returned from a year-long, misbegotten foray into European soccer that was supposed to take him to the English Premier League but yielded just three goals in the Dutch league.
He’s back with the New England Revolution, the team he left when his MLS contract was up. He’d come up with the Red Bulls but was traded twice, to Chivas USA and then to the Revs. Stoke City had lured Agudelo to England only to learn that he couldn’t get a work permit. The club then loaned him to FC Utrecht, failed a second time to employ him legally, and gave up.
It’s been a while since we’ve spoken at length. He was 18 then, in fact, and a bona fide prodigy, the latest great American hope for a real, worldwide soccer star. At 17, he had already dazzled for the Red Bulls in the playoffs and become the youngest U.S. goalscorer on his senior debut. In the next year, 2011, he made 14 appearances for the national team, but he has played in just one game a year since. Because now, talking into the phone in hushed tones as six-week-old Catalina coos in the background, he’s less the precocious bundle of talent than another cautionary tale.
At 22, Agudelo has lived a long soccer life already. He’s been a professional for five years and played for four clubs, not including Stoke. He still brims with ability, as evidenced by his early flashes upon his return with the Revs. Barring injury, he should have another dozen or so seasons in him. Yet there’s a nagging sense that things have sort of gone wrong for him.
The last time we talked properly, four years ago, I wrote this about him for ESPN.com:
Don’t call Juan Agudelo a rising star.
Don’t call him special, a super-prospect, a prodigy, or even worse, the Next Big Thing … In fact, forget you’ve ever even heard the 18-year-old Colombian-American striker’s name.
Yes, he was mighty impressive in his first two professional starts … And, yes, he scored a game-winning goal in his debut for the U.S. … But just leave him be.
Just this once, let’s not treat a promising young player as a vehicle for everything we wish that American soccer could be. Because those vehicles never make it to their intended destinations.
Later in the piece, Agudelo himself said that the pressure, rushing in on him from every corner, was “just a little bit tough.” He was aware of those who had stumbled out of the gate before him – those other As: Adu and Altidore.
“I just noticed that with other people that you can’t take things for granted at the beginning and have to keep on working hard because things might not go the way people hyped them up to be,” he said. “I know that this can happen to anybody and also to me, and it scares me a little bit. But I also know that I’m from a good family and there’s no way I’m going to let this happen to me.”
It did happen to him. All of those things did trip up Agudelo. Nobody had the impression that he didn’t keep working or striving, but his career did go off the tracks in Europe. He was without a club for seven months, as a 21-year-old of immense promise who had last been under contract in the Premier League. He did become a victim of the hype machine. All those early caps did him no favors. He built a name very quickly and caught the interest of European clubs. But he was lured away far too soon, with much yet to learn here, stateside in Major League Soccer.
His then-coach at the Red Bulls, Hans Backe, had warned about this, saying that players projected for stardom “move too early to Europe, because of the big money, of course, and then they can’t develop.”
According to the MLS Players Union, Agudelo was paid a base salary of $145,000 by MLS in 2013, the year before he left. Word has it Stoke was paying him $1.5 million annually.
But in late 2013, England’s Football Association, which sets the rules and advises the English immigration service on who should be given a work-permit to play soccer, tightened up the rules – on Monday, it was announced they would be tightened up further. It was an act of protectionism. A great many players who didn’t qualify under the benchmark of having to represent your senior national team for 75 percent of games over the last two years were accepted on appeal. And the FA, wary of drowning its own prospects in all that foreign talent, cracked down. So Agudelo was denied his work permit twice.
“I was pretty surprised,” he says now, speaking in his slow, pronounced patter. “Due to the fact that I had a lot of caps and people that have gotten work permits before had less caps than me with the national team.”
He could have stayed in Europe. Utrecht made him an offer after Stoke released him. So did another club in the Netherlands. Agudelo says he could have signed with “multiple teams in different countries, top teams in Belgium, good teams in Germany and also Spain and obviously Holland.”
(He says the rumor that he tried to buy property in Cyprus to acquire EU citizenship – and presumably push his English work permit process over the line – was “false.”)
But he came home. “I just thought the best decision for me and my family was to come back to the MLS … be settled for once,” says Agudelo.
So here he is again, the prodigal son returned, back with the Revs, to start over. He is, for the first time in a while, comfortable.
“It’s definitely a lot easier to begin better because you’ve already been accustomed to a sort of system and a sort of understanding of how your teammates play,” he says. “You play catch-up a lot faster.”
Agudelo isn’t the introspective sort. He has a hard time putting his finger on what went wrong, exactly, even as he is pressed on it. “I still played the same, I still stayed after training, trying to better myself,” he says. “I don’t think I changed my work ethic at all. I just had a couple injuries.”
Was he overhyped? He’s not sure. “I don’t even listen to that stuff, so I don’t even know how high expectations people had,” he says. “I don’t know. I never cared about those things at the time.”
Finally, he decides that the competition for jobs in Europe, and especially in the Premier League, is harsh and unforgiving. Finding playing time just isn’t as easy as it might look to an American prospect, when he leers over at Europe and its riches and glory from across the pond.
“Playing regularly for a good club [or Stoke] definitely would be harder,” Agudelo says. “It’s just a different mentality and system. There’s always another younger or older guy that they’re able to get if you’re underperforming. In Europe, they’re going to get a guy right away to put pressure on players. They take it a lot more seriously there. There’s always, always someone knocking on your door.”
As happy as he seems to be back home, the pull of Europe still tugs at Agudelo, who has said that if he’d been single, he would probably have stuck it out in Europe. “I’d definitely consider going back when the time is right,” he said. “But if you want to go to Europe, all the pieces have to fall into place.”
He went, and they didn’t. So now he is home, piecing his career back together.