The New York Red Bulls' Juan Agudelo made an impact from his first match for both club and country in 2010. The Red Bulls' academy product became the club's first Home Grown Player to appear in a competitive match when he made his debut against the Philadelphia Union in the U.S. Open Cup qualifiers, and came on as a substitute in a late-season league game against Real Salt Lake in which he nearly set up the winning goal.
Agudelo came off the bench again the next week against Philadelphia when he had a shot cleared off the line in the closing stages as the Red Bulls tried to snatch a draw, and went on to start in both legs of New York's Eastern Conference Semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Despite his immediate impact at club level, Agudelo's best debut was yet to come. The Colombian-born striker had starred for the United States' Under-17 and Under-20 national teams, participating in both the 2009 U-17 World Cup and the 2010 Milk Cup, and USA coach Bob Bradley called him up for the senior side's match against South Africa in November of 2010. Not only did Agudelo earn his first cap at just 17 when he came on for Robbie Rogers in the 61st minute, but he scored the winner five minutes from time, becoming the youngest player to score for the senior USA side.
Since that SportsCenter highlight reel moment, he has been capped a second time for the United States, again coming off the bench and proving decisive as he drew the penalty that was scored by Teal Bunbury to give the USA a 1-1 draw with Chile.
Agudelo is good with both feet, although he prefers his right. However, he tends to prefer playing on the left while occasionally switching flanks. He is also very adept technically and has a decent eye for a pass. Most importantly for the Red Bulls, a team sorely lacking in speed, Agudelo also has plenty of pace and acceleration.
What can Agudelo do to improve his game?
As is the case with many promising young strikers, Agudelo has demonstrated a tendency to go for the extraordinary a little too often. Particularly in the second leg of New York's playoff tie with San Jose, he seemed too willing to go for goal from tight angles instead of pulling the ball back for a teammate. While he has the quality to score such difficult shots, his decision-making in the penalty area is not the best.
How will you know when he's figuring it all out?
Agudelo is well on his way already. Even during the course of that playoff game against San Jose he seemed to be learning which options to take, and his cross for Juan Pablo Ángel's headed goal was a great example. He is still only 18, but has shown the capacity to understand more of the professional game, and we can expect him to continue getting better.
What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?
Injuries (or lack thereof) will be very important in determining how often Agudelo is on the pitch for the Red Bulls in 2011. It looks unlikely that he will be fit for First Kick against the Seattle Sounders, with a groin injury keeping him out of New York's final group of pre-season friendlies in Arizona. If fit, he will probably start at least 20-25 games at striker alongside Thierry Henry, and a expectations of a goal return between 10 and 15 are probably fair.
What's the ceiling on Agudelo?
This is a very difficult question because he simply hasn't played many competitive games at senior level; he's made just two substitute appearances in MLS and two starts. What we've seen when he has been on the pitch is very good: Agudelo is strong enough to survive in MLS, and has the technical quality that some other young American strikers lack. He seems to have gained the trust of Red Bulls coach Hans Backe, but we need to see a full season's worth of performances to even get in the ballpark of a fair assessment of his talents.