Juan Agudelo: Once And Future Phenom

Posted by Jason Davis

Once upon a time, Juan Agudelo was the future of American strikers. Quick and highly skilled, the young Colombian-born forward was primed to light up New York as the young face of one of Major League Soccer's most visible franchises.

Agudelo showed enough flashes and scored often enough to move into the USMNT picture. In the months immediately following the Americans' round of 16 showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Agudelo went from youth international fixture to budding national team star, all on the back of his fearless game and penchant for spectacular goals. In other words, he was a phenom, destined for great things at both the club and international levels.

But a distressing thing happened on the way to Agudelo’s rise to American soccer star. He picked up a reputation for laziness and fell out of favor with then-Red Bulls coach Hans Backe. He seemed to think more highly of himself than his accomplishments warranted, chafing fans of both his MLS side and the U.S. national team with his "swag" mentality.

As his minutes dwindled with the Red Bulls, so did the prospects he could reach his full potential, obvious as it was in intermittent flashes. Relegated to the bench in New York, no longer a national teamer, and with new names on which to focus, the public moved on, shifting Agudelo in the metaphorical "maybe" pile. It was better than the "lost cause" pile, but not by much. "Maybes" hardly ever work out.

A trade to Chivas USA last May was almost enough to totally marginalize Agudelo as a prospect worth watching. Even if his minutes increased -- and how could they not, Chivas was terrible -- Agudelo had too many strikes against him to have our faith anymore. His "swag" act only flew for as long as he was producing.

Once he ran into trouble with the Red Bulls coaching staff, he no longer got a pass to play the cocky phenom, twitpic-ing flights on private planes. At Chivas, long the league's least interesting team, Agudelo was just another underwhelming young American player after initially raising our hopes.

Almost as though he was consciously filling the role laid out for him, Agudelo went on to make 20 appearances for Chivas USA, scoring just three times. Phenom status revoked.

At this point, out of strikes, Agudelo didn’t even get the benefit of doubt that he was playing for a poor team that scored just 24 goals, lowest in the league, all year.

In the offseason, Agudelo did a mini-tour of European training stints that morphed into full-fledged trials/transfer rumors. He was linked to Celtic, even going to far as to retweet a British story that the Scottish giants were making a bid for his services. It was a strange act for a player, especially when no move happened, furthering Agudelo’s "me-first" reputation.

In 2013, Agudelo has started strong, with two goals through four games. He picked up a Player of the Week award for his one goal, one assist performance against Chicago last weekend. His new coach, the vocal Chelis, has gone to great lengths to praise his young forward despite admitting he didn't actually know what he had in Agudelo when he took the job. With Chivas turning heads around the league thanks to Chelis and a surprising start, Agudelo has a chance to rehabilitate his reputation both on the field and off it.

If we've learned anything from the impressive improvement and maturation of Jozy Altidore over the course of the last few seasons after a rocky start to his European career, it should be that young players don't always handle "phenom" status well, and that giving up on them before they prove themselves completely incapable of meeting some of the hype is foolish.

If Altidore can shake off a reputation for laziness and petulance (possibly unfairly earned), there’s no reason to believe that Agudelo can’t do the same. Maybe the phenom ship has sailed, and Agudelo will need to tread a harder road back to stardom; or maybe, at just 20, he still has time to re-assume the mantle.

Finally, playing for a coach who seems anxious to get the most out of him, and without the distractions that come with playing for a marquee franchise, Agudelo could flourish. Whether that means becoming a phenom again or simply moving into a higher echelon of talented young American player, only time -- and Agudelo’s maturity -- will tell.

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