In other sports, Juan Agudelo would be almost untouchable. His talent-to-cost ratio would be too high to deal, especially in a league with strict spending restrictions. He’d be on this first/rookie deal, not arbitration eligible, would still have options. Whatever metaphor you want to use, it’d be hard to craft a scenario where trading such a talented 20-year-old is justifiable.
And despite a year’s worth of speculation surrounding his status in New York, Agudelo was barely touchable in New York. Backtracking through the year-and-a-half since he burst onto the scene in Cape Town, six facets had to coincide to foster this remarkable (if slightly expected) deal.
Flash potential, but leave them wanting more
Becoming the youngest scorer in national team history is more than a flash, but for most, Agudelo’s Nov. 17, 2010 goal against South Africa was their first exposure to the Colombia-born attacker. It’s hard to put a moment like that on a blank canvas and not see imaginations run wild, especially with Agudelo’s speed, movement and skill fueling that dream.
To this point, that vision has stayed a dream. Agudelo has two goals in 15 national team appearances, and only six in 33 games for the Red Bulls. They’re impressive numbers for a 20-year-old (to put it in perspective, 19-year-old Jack McInerney has four goals in 40 games for Philadelphia), but combined with South Africa, the numbers have left national team fans wanting more.
A national team rise fuels expectations (and value)
Agudelo may not have been scoring goals, but he kept getting called into the national team. Further fueling dreams, he was actually playing. The exposure made it hard to accept his status with New York as something other than an aberration – the product of an equation being influenced by something strange going on with Red Bull. What was that strange thing? Some guessed (and tried to tie those reasons into New York’s historical lack of success), but we really don’t know.
But why New York was the aberration and not the national team? New coach at the beginning of a World Cup cycle trying to see what he has on the shelf – that seems like the more likely scenario to produce some debatable selections.
In the U.S., the national team has always held a lot of sway regarding how players are perceived (see Donovan v. Dempsey, Howard v. Freidel). Agudelo was a comer for the national team. Therefore, he was valuable.
Coach ignores national team hype (while league does not)
Hans Backe wasn’t buying it, though. Agudelo’s club coach just didn’t seem to rate the kid, and if he did, he didn’t rate Agudelo above Thierry Henry, Luke Rodgers, Kenny Cooper (or, going back to when Agudelo debuted in 2010, Juan Pablo Angel, Macoumba Kandji, and Salou Ibrahim). Particularly when the Henry-Rodgers duo was at its best, Backe had no reason to use Agudelo as more than an impact sub. When Backe responded to attackers’ injuries by shifting to 4-5-1 from 4-4-2 (electing to play Mehdi Ballouchy instead of Agudelo), his evaluation was clear.
The broader world of Major League Soccer, on the other hand, has every reason to love Agudelo. He is still only 20. If he was blocked at Red Bull, it doesn’t matter. At least, in the big picture, it doesn’t. MLS has every reason to think time and Agudelo’s talent will see their homegrown, national team star become a key figure for the league.
Explore move abroad that wouldn’t happen
During the winter, Agudelo was linked with moves abroad, with rumors telling of interest from clubs in Germany and England. It made sense, for both club and player. New York cashes in on their homegrown talent while Agudelo gets an opportunity most players can only dream of. Sure, opinion was mixed on Agudelo’s value, but all it takes is one team to buy into the potential for New York to be looking at another Jozy Altidore-esque payday.
It’s unclear what would have been in it for the league, though. Major League Soccer doesn’t have a history of selling early on talent, particularly when the player has a reasonable U.S. national team profile (Altidore being a notable exception). If somebody was going to break the bank for Agudelo, of course there’d be interest. But it’s difficult for a buyer to justify breaking the bank for a player who’s not getting a regular shift.
Become available after teams have laid their 2012 plans
While he headed into an uncertain 2012 – not unknowing how much he would play amid the Luke Rodgers’ saga and the Kenny Cooper acquisition – Agudelo injured his ankle. Then, while with the U.S. U-23 team, he hurt his knee. He was sidelined for a month.
By the time he was back, teams’ rosters had fallen into place, with a slew of attacking talent coming to the league. Seattle (Eddie Johnson), Portland (Kris Boyd), LA (Edson Buddle), Dallas (Blas Pérez), D.C. (Hamdi Salihi), New England (Saer Sene), and Philadelphia (Lionard Pajoy) all added strikers, and while most teams in the league would love to have Agudelo, the reality of Major League Soccer means it’s hard to stockpile talent.
The league’s rules and make it difficult to justify acquiring excessive depth at one position, particularly if you’re asked to give up something in return. Sure, Real Salt Lake (for example) could use Juan Agudelo, but would they want to give up a Chris Schuler to do so? They’re left to make a title run hoping neither Jamison Olave nor Nat Borchers go down while sitting four or five deep a forward.
Somebody to steps forward
Eventually, the right scenario presented itself. After acquiring Danny Califf from Philadelphia, Chivas USA had some notable defensive talent to spare, something that matched defender-challenged New York’s needs. They also had a problem scoring goals and could offer Agudelo immediate playing time. Willing to throw in a slew of ancillary incentives (allocation money, percentage of potential sale) to Heath Pearce, Chivas USA finally had a package that could make New York move.
All of which was augmented by Erik Soler’s reported belief that Agudelo wanted to move. Faced with that preference, it’s hard to turn down a trade that sends a backup away for a player that immediately slots into your starting XI.
Absent any of these six factors, Juan Agedulo might still be in New York. His trade was the function of expectation, evaluation, depth, rules and timing. It’s the type of confluence you need to see a 20-year-old national teamer dealt mid-season.