Throw-In: The Kid stays in the picture
Stand next to Juan Agudelo, and the first thing you notice about him is his size. He’s listed at 6-foot-1, 183 pounds and has a wide-shouldered body made to play center forward.
Then you realize he’s just 17. He’ll just keep growing. That’s a scary thought for the rest of MLS.
“The Kid,” as he’s warmly referred to by his teammates, is growing up faster than perhaps any player on any Major League Soccer roster. It’s been barely eight months since Agudelo signed his first professional contract with New York. Yet last weekend, he played understudy to injured Thierry Henry and became the fourth-youngest player in league history to start a playoff game.
Not bad for a guy who’s too young to vote and still lives with his godparents. Agudelo is so young, in fact, that he even makes teammate and fellow rookie Tim Ream – just five years his senior – feel old.
“He’s a special player,” Ream said last weekend, “and obviously, at 17, [if] you’re playing professional soccer, you’re going to be special.”
A special kid calls for special circumstances. Call it kismet, fate, an extraordinary chain of events, whatever. Red Bulls fans were deservedly in a minor panic as the MLS Cup Playoffs approached when it came to their strike force.
Juan Pablo Angel hasn’t been the same threat this season, Macoumba Kandji was shipped out, Thierry Henry still isn’t 100 percent and then, wammo – the latest straw was journeyman Salou Ibrahim being sidelined with a tight hamstring before New York’s postseason opener at San Jose last weekend.
That left RBNY’s front line thinner than Peter Crouch on a master cleanse. But no one inside the organization panicked. They all knew The Kid was ready.
Two days before that playoff opener at Buck Shaw Stadium, Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe pulled his young prodigy aside and told him the news he’d been waiting to hear: He was getting the start alongside Ángel.
Sure, Agudelo has seen game action this year – he had played in US Open Cup play and finally got in as a sub in league action in two games toward the end of the season. But we’re talking playoffs – and a starting debut in a road game. That’s a whole different beast.
“I was anxious,” Agudelo admitted to MLSsoccer.com. “So anxious just to get that feeling to go in and play against really good players in MLS.”
Any fears RBNY fans may have had before kickoff quickly disappeared. Agudelo stepped in like a pro and did exactly what was asked of him: Advance the ball with his speed, use his pace to get behind defenders, make the link-up passes and generally be a pain in the rear for the Earthquakes defense. The teen starlet handled it all like, well, like a professional.
When it was all said and done, The Kid had gone a full 90 minutes for the first time in his pro career and was a key contributor in a big 1-0 victory. The bounces of the ball even offered a few chances on goal, which Agudelo admits he didn’t expect.
“Our focus for me was just to get in behind them with my speed,” Agudelo explained. “I just tried to keep it simple. It was my first time starting a game and playing 90 and I didn’t want to do too much.”
In the 60th minute, two ticks after Agudelo was able to crack a shot off from the left side of the box that was blocked, he unexpectedly found himself unmarked with the ball on the left side of the area again after a defensive mix-up by the Earthquakes. With a couple of quick moves, Agudelo charged toward goal with space. And his eyes started to widen.
“I was thinking, ‘Could this be the chance to score?’” he recounted. “’How am I gonna celebrate this goal?’”
His effort was saved by San Jose ‘keeper Jon Busch, but it was a hold-your-breath moment. The Kid has scored plenty of good goals for the US U-17 and U-20 squads – more than a dozen – and you get the feeling his time is coming soon. His confidence is right there on his sleeve. To say he was unintimidated by a huge opportunity last weekend is an understatement.
“He played excellent,” Backe said postgame. “I’m surprised that a 17-year-old can be that mature in his first game, and it’s a playoff, too.”
By all accounts, The Kid proved to everyone that he’s ready to be the contributor the team was so excited about getting when it signed him back in March to a Generation adidas contract. Colombian-born, but New Jersey-bred, Agudelo showed magnificent promise as a Red Bulls academy prodigy, and continues to do so in a US national team uniform.
But you’re never quite sure how that talent will adapt at the pro level. So far so good – and then some. Eight months removed from signing his name on the dotted line, and he’s winning praise from the likes of Henry and Ángel, guys he says he idolized.
If you’re looking for a star in the making, we could be watching the early chapters of a fantastic success story. Backe was so impressed with Agudelo’s poise in his first start that he says he’s seriously considering giving The Kid an encore on Thursday in the second leg at Red Bull Arena. And that’s despite Ibrahim’s availability and a possible Henry cameo.
Agudelo’s face lit up when asked what he thought about a possible start in his home state.
“Oh man,” he said, nearly giggling at the idea. “I would love to. That would be the greatest thing ever.”
Spoken just like typical a 17-year-old ... at a normal day at the office.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.