EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Juan Agudelo is either good or lucky or, most likely, a precious little bit of both. Either way, the United States doesn’t care much, content to simply enjoy the ongoing show of a kid who turns all he touches into gold.
Perhaps it should not have been a surprise that Agudelo, the 18-year-old forward from the New York Red Bulls, delivered again on the biggest night of his career, popping up to grab the game-tying goal in a 1-1 draw against world No. 4 Argentina in an exhibition at New Meadowlands Stadium.
After all, the boy with the kind of delightful arrogance reserved for youth and which gives opposition defenses serious headaches, had produced the goods before – scoring against South Africa in his international debut, shining for the Red Bulls in the MLS playoffs and transforming the game in his first home USA match against Chile.
This time around, he enjoyed a hefty slice of good fortune when Argentina goalkeeper Mariano Andujar clumsily spilled Carlos Bocanegra’s goal-bound header after 59 minutes. Still though, it was Agudelo who reacted quickest to comfortably tuck the ball into the net before setting off on a joyous celebration.
In that moment the thought arose once more that maybe, just maybe, USA head coach Bob Bradley has found one of those most cherished types of attacking player: an opportunist.
“Whenever you put Juan on the field he has confidence,” Bradley said. “He puts himself in good positions, when the ball comes he is strong and has something where he is looking to try things, things that make sense. We have seen it and we have the chance to bring him in and see he is improving.
“He has a knack of turning up in good spots to get goals. Most of all he has a good attitude about working on little things and picking up from other players.”
Agudelo carries not a shred of fear about him, even on this bitterly cold night with Lionel Messi and friends having shivered their way into town. He has no problem with attempting the impetuous and unconventional and added some genuine spark after coming on as substitute in the second half.
By that stage Argentina was already a goal ahead, having taken control of the game early and capitalizing when Esteban Cambiasso scored three minutes before the break. Indeed, Argentina was the better team throughout, which in some ways made the American achievement even more commendable. Not many teams in the world outplay those South Americans and the USA is a long way away from producing a team capable of doing so.
This then, said much about spirit and determination, even if it does not mean Bradley’s side can claim to be close to par with the elite. Saturday was a positive step nonetheless, the kind of good vibe that came from a 0-0 draw with the same opponent here in 2008.
Bradley has some time on his hands and some tough decisions to make, many of them influenced by Agudelo. The youngster will never be the kind of player who excels in leading an attacking line on his own, preferring to feed off other players.
His introduction after the break prompted a shift to a 4-4-2 formation, with Agudelo up front with Jozy Altidore. Such policy will surely be seen with more frequency from now on, which should help Bradley silence some of the critics who have occasionally derided him as being too negative. Pinning future hopes upon an 18-year-old is a dangerous business though, as goalkeeper Tim Howard was swift to remind.
“We have to remember there have been a lot of Juans,” Howard said. “There have been a lot of kids who have burst through at a young age but not managed to kick on and fulfill their potential. I love what I see from him, he is fantastic in training and he has to keep working and grinding every day.
“We will try to put a bit of a barrier around him and protect him a bit, but his performances speak for themselves.”
Scoring against such a high-profile opponent will only increase the hype around Agudelo. Correct or not, it is now unavoidable. It is also a lot for a teenager to be burdened with, but you get the sense Agudelo’s shoulders are broad enough to carry it.