Juan Agudelo's time is coming.
The New York Red Bulls' homegrown signing hasn't seen the field in a Major League Soccer match, but manager Hans Backe keeps hinting the 17-year-old will earn minutes soon.
"[Backe] said there will be chances for some different players in upcoming games," Agudelo told MLSSoccer.com by phone after training on Thursday afternoon.
Until that day comes, however, the Under-20 striker sounds content to focus on improving. A young forward could do worse than taking reps behind all-world talents Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel.
"I've learned something new every day," he said. "It might be cliché, but I seriously do. My game is improving from a mental standpoint so much."
The six-foot striker knows his positioning on the field is better and he credits that developing skill with a newfound ability to score tough goals in the box. The hard work is paying off as the former U-17 standout earned Man of the Match honors in the final of the Milk Cup, a premier U-20 tournament. In the 43rd minute of the U.S.' 3-0 victory, Agudelo beat two defenders before unleashing a vicious shot that flew past Northern Ireland goalkeeper Wayne Drummond.
The New York Red Bull Academy product also traveled with the U-20 squad on its recent trip to Peru. Although the team went winless in four matches, Agudelo saw significant minutes and believes it was good preparation for April's CONCACAF U-20 World Cup qualifier and the World Cup in Colombia.
"I'm not going to take things for granted but I'm just really happy with the coach that we have, [Thomas Rongen]," he said. "I think he's been the best coach that I've ever had; his mentality and the way that he treats his players. The way that he gives them freedom is why I enjoy him, and I love going to any camp [he's coaching]."
Agudelo boasts impressive size, strength, and technique, and he knows how to beat defenders in one-on-one situations. The kid, in other words, can freelance. It's no wonder he enjoys Rongen's looser training sessions but feels a bit held back by the discipline Backe imposes.
"With the Red Bulls, coaches want to teach me how to play and while I'm playing they try to control me like an xBox 360 player," he said. "They are helping but it seems like I need to learn by myself. Sometimes it's too much because I make unforced errors. They want me to pass the ball too much.
"When I have freedom, I'll play one or two-touch when I feel like I'm comfortable doing that. I feel like I rush things [with the Red Bulls] because I don't have the freedom to play my game."
While the teenager would relish the opportunity to be let loose, he understands his route to playing on the green grass of Red Bull Arena lies through fitting into his Swedish coach's system. That means developing some less glamorous skills.
"I have to protect the ball better," he said. "Tony Tchani, he knows how to protect the ball so well. I'm always talking to him and I'm like 'How do you do this?' He basically stiff-arms defenders when he gets the ball."
If that sounds a bit like American football, it's because, well, it is. Style and flair will only get a player, even a precociously talented 17-year-old, so far. Sometimes you need to put your head down and power through. But Agudelo is figuring that out quickly.