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CARSON, Calif. – Thierry Henry, the European soccer legend, French superstar, cultural icon and record-breaking striker, landed in New York late last summer, the biggest name to set up camp in Major League Soccer since some guy named Beckham three years earlier.
Stepping into the Big Apple fresh from a devastating French failure at the World Cup raised inevitable questions. Sure, like David Beckham in Los Angeles, his arrival was going to bring publicity. But would throwing millions at an aging foreign star in the twilight of his career bring any lasting benefit to the American game?
Yet just a few months into the Henry experiment, it may just be that his legacy is already taking shape. Its name is Juan Agudelo.
American soccer has had its share of boy wonders (Freddie Adu, anyone?) that have failed to live up to the lofty projections set forth for them. Agudelo, who turned 18 in November and has been outstanding every time the public has cast eyes upon him, hopes to avoid that curse.
A month before he came of age, Agudelo gave notice of his abilities, turning in a playoff performance against the San Jose Earthquakes that was notable for its energy and maturity. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe threw Agudelo in because Henry’s knee injury meant there were no other options in attack, even though the kid had seen just 14 minutes of regular season action.
The results were surprisingly impressive as the youngster showed no sign of nerves and brilliantly set up a goal for Juan Pablo Angel, despite being unable to prevent the club’s season from ending with elimination.
That display was likely what prompted national team boss Bob Bradley to call him up for the USA’s friendly in South Africa on Nov. 17, a return to the nation where the team’s World Cup dreams ended in the last 16 stage and where central striker Jozy Altidore did not manage a single goal.
The most dramatic moment of Agudelo’s life came with five minutes left at Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium, when a flick of his right cleat sent the ball crashing off the underside of the crossbar for the only goal of the game.
As quickly as the plaudits poured in, so too did the warnings and the urge for perspective. And the questions, lots of them.
Will Agudelo get the right opportunities? Will the attention go to his head? Will he suddenly lose form? And, most importantly perhaps, will he get the right sort of guidance?
The first three will only be answered by time. The last one? Well, that is where Henry comes in.
Titi, as he is known in France, was brought in by the New York Red Bulls to score goals, attract bigger crowds, and give the club’s spectacular new Red Bull Arena a figurehead upon which to build a better future.
The way he has emerged as a friend, mentor and inspiration to Agudelo is a bonus, unplanned but mightily welcome.
“It has been an amazing year,” said Agudelo, talking to Yahoo! Sports after a national team training session at the Home Depot Center. A USA team featuring mainly home-based players takes on Chile on Jan. 22. “I broke through, scored that goal and people got to know who I am.
“But the most amazing part of the year for me is the fact that Thierry Henry came to play in New York and the way it all worked out. Here is this guy who I used to go on YouTube just to find his videos. Now he is at my club, he has the locker next to mine, and he is my friend.”
Insiders at the Red Bulls say Henry took a special interest in Agudelo from day one, recognizing his talent and offering his expertise. Such influence is worth its weight in gold.
The role of a modern soccer striker is a tricky one. For a young player it is the mental development, approach, confidence, positioning and reading of the game which is more critical than the physical. Agudelo has great promise, no question, and a body made for his position. But there are many pitfalls to be negotiated.
Henry brazenly made his way through plenty of those in his early years before becoming one of the greats of his generation with Arsenal and Barcelona.
Now he is in the Big Apple and for Agudelo, the way Henry’s move has transpired has become a dream come true. The youngster lives with his mother in Barnegat Township, N.J., and stays with relatives in Kinnelon during the season. Henry shacks up in a $14.85 million SoHo triplex that is a master class in modern elegance. But for much of each day they are peers, albeit with a hierarchy based on soccer experience.
“Some great players have a big head,” Agudelo said. “But from the first day (Henry) came in he was just this great professional. He makes jokes, he mimics people and has everyone cracking up. Seriously, if he wasn’t a soccer player he should be on stage.
“He gets the respect he deserves because of what he had achieved in the game. I listen to every word he says and when he gives me advice I have huge respect for it. But what makes it mean even more is that he has the humility to still be one of the guys. That says so much about him as a person.
“We talk and we have seen each other away from soccer, too. That doesn’t happen all the time because I don’t want him to feel like he is my babysitter. He is a great person to be around though and it is inspiring – even more if you want to be a great goal scorer.”
These are busy times for Agudelo, who remains a key part of the USA Under-20 team as well as being involved in the full men’s side. The MLS offseason has afforded him little rest, but that hasn’t bothered him any.
Agudelo feels his time is now, but that his best is still on the horizon. He has Colombian heritage, but is committed to the USA, and at club level has one eye trained on Europe, an ambition encouraged by Henry.
“I have been seeing Juan in training for a long time now,” Henry said recently. “You can see that he can have a bright future. You also need to be careful because the guy is young. But I can’t say anything about that because I started at 17, I went to national team young, and I didn’t turn out badly. So hopefully he can have a great career and be a great asset for the USA.”
Bradley will watch Agudelo’s development closely and will fervently hope that he grows into a consistent, international-quality forward before the next World Cup in 2014, when he will be 21.
Henry may have left New York by then, so too may Agudelo. But each day they spend in each other’s company can only be good for the national team and for the young man’s progress. Henry, just by being Henry, might be helping to turn genuine promise into tangible quality.
And, in the process, be giving his new home a priceless soccer gift.