The fight for playing time
Is Juan Agudelo's development in jeopardy with the Red Bulls?
U.S. soccer's latest Next Big Thing, the most recently anointed vehicle for international soccer dominance, is wading into treacherous waters. When it comes to Juan Agudelo, the New York Red Bulls' 19-year-old Colombian-American striker -- who scored twice and earned a penalty in his first three U.S. appearances in 2010 and 2011 -- could soon see his development lag behind its projected growth curve.
Agudelo is the product and property of the New York Red Bulls, as he was when he became the first U.S. Soccer Development Academy graduate to earn a senior national team cap -- in November 2010. But that very club is perhaps now holding him back, too.
This offseason, the ambitious Red Bulls traded for U.S. fringe player Kenny Cooper, adding the ex-Portland Timbers striker to the high-profile duo of Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers that already had relegated Agudelo to the bench. Last year, Agudelo made a dozen starts and 15 substitute appearances in his first full season, totaling 1364 minutes. But, in 2012, Cooper and a healthy Rodgers could take a big chunk out of that playing time, and any projections are made worse by NYRB coach Hans Backe's propensity to go with veterans when given the chance: Dane Richards, a natural winger, started all 30 MLS games last season and frequently was preferred up front to Agudelo.
If Backe's hesitation to play Agudelo more often is merely, as he argues, intended to protect the precocious phenom, it's nevertheless disconcerting from a national team perspective. After all, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is adamant that all national teamers get regular minutes at club level, and he doesn't care whether that means playing in MLS as opposed to overseas -- as long as they play.
Yet the U.S. striker pool is notoriously thin, made up almost entirely of players who are much more prospect than finished product without consistent minutes to rely upon. In Agudelo's case, the improbable scenario has arisen that a largely unproven and untested player plays as many minutes for the U.S. as he does for his MLS club team; simply put, he is relied upon more heavily by country than club.
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Agudelo already has more appearances for the U.S. (15) than he does career starts for his club team (12). And, in 2011, he averaged 47.53 minutes in 14 appearances for the U.S. and averaged 47.51 minutes in 27 appearances for the Red Bulls. The difference might be just a matter of seconds, but it nevertheless underscores just how desperate the U.S. is for able-bodied forwards -- and how reliant it has become on players such as Agudelo who are largely unestablished at club level. It simply can't afford for Agudelo to be glued to the pine in MLS.
"It's a function of where we are with the dearth of national team forwards," ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas said. "When we see a potential star not getting the time, which would translate to not developing for the national team, that can get frustrating."
In all of this, it's hard to blame the Red Bulls for bringing in other striker options beyond U.S. soccer's rising star. Rodgers is injury-prone and has yet to secure his 2012 work visa because of renewal complications from overstaying his permits last season. Henry turns 35 in August and has a balky Achilles. And Agudelo himself, after all, could miss a good chunk of the season if the U.S. qualifies for the Olympics and he makes the squad, both of which are expected.
Yet his further burial down the depth chart forebodes an ugly scenario we've seen a few times too often. Agudelo's "Next Big Thing" predecessors, Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore, similarly saw their development stalled when playing time became hard to find. But what makes Agudelo different is that neither Adu nor Altidore ever had trouble logging minutes in MLS; their struggles for minutes started once they made premature and overambitious moves to big European clubs.
Perhaps this potential downswing in playing time says more about MLS' evolution than it does about him. "There's always competition," Agudelo told reporters Friday. "Every team in the league is getting really good with the amount of players that are fighting for a starting position, so I think anywhere there's competition."
Not that it dilutes the urgency of playing. "For all young players, it's definitely very important to play and get as many minutes as possible if you're just on the bench and not playing enough minutes," Backe conceded. "Every player needs that to improve."
"He's undoubtedly talented, but, in order to exploit and refine that talent, he's got to play," echoed Lalas, who drafted Altidore as general manager of the then-MetroStars back in 2006. "I don't think anybody thought he was the finished product, and he's no different from any other young player in the world, and he's got to play. Sitting on the bench, while you can get some benefit from being around good, older, experienced players, eventually, you've got to play."
Even without sufficient minutes, there is some value to Agudelo's sticking with the Red Bulls, particularly in Henry's ongoing mentorship -- priceless exposure for a young American to one of the all-time greats. "This is a tough season, and, with the number of quality players we have in our roster now, every [training] session will be high quality," Backe said. "But, of course, [for] competitive games and minutes, these four guys have to fight for the starting position."
No doubt Agudelo will fight. He can compete with the men in front of him despite being at least eight years and hundreds of games their junior. But if he loses the tussle for playing time or simply isn't given the chance, all involved would be best served by a loan or transfer away from the club, as has been rumored in recent months. "After this year, he and his agent are going to have to really assess if this is the right situation for them," Lalas said.
And, as of now, Backe won't rule out the possibility. "I'm not quite sure," he said. Whether a move is in Agudelo's best interest, he argued, "Depends always, of course, where you end up."
"But I still think that, at that young age, you shouldn't rush it," Backe said. "If you're given the right amount of minutes and also with the quality players in the training environment will help you a lot."
But will it help the U.S. national team?
In the short term: absolutely not.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.