Juan Agudelo interview: ‘This business of art’ – Revs striker bringing back the knack
The sparks of flair found in U.S. international Juan Agudelo’s early career have brought many to their feet, and after returning last season to the team who enjoyed arguably his most stunningly impudent piece of on-field showmanship in his first spell, the New England Revolution forward hasn’t lost that all-round taste for expression.
A swift and noteworthy emergence with the National Team at the tail end of 2010 put the name of Juan Agudelo firmly into the thoughts of those in and around U.S. soccer. The Colombian-born, New Jersey-raised attacking prospect had also written himself into the record books, as his debut goal as a 17-year-old to beat South Africa in a Cape Town friendly made him the youngest scorer in the team’s modern history.
With such an assured introduction at a tender age came the expected wave of attention from experts and onlookers eager to see him reach astronomical heights and become that oft-discussed global sensation the American game has always yearned for. Still just 23, his unquestionable attributes have taken him to Europe and back, although the plot details were not quite what he originally had in mind.
Signing a pre-contract agreement with the Premier League’s Stoke City in August 2013, a surprising work permit denial resulted in a loan to FC Utrecht of the Dutch Eredivisie, with a second refused application on his return to his parent club leaving him to seek a new avenue. It ultimately led him back to a destination where he had been happy – his native East Coast with his previous club, New England Revolution.
In his second season back with the Revs, Juan has recently returned from injury to help ignite the five-time MLS Cup runners-up’s playoff hopes with some eye-catching September form. Head coach Jay Heaps has long valued his game-turning finishing and creativity, with his outrageous back-heeled lift over Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson a wonderful combination of both, and an abiding memory of his 2013 stint with the club.
The eye for the spectacular is one feature of his expressive character, as is a melodic bond that he sees as vital in surrounding him with the best kind of vibes before he steps out onto his own stage.
“Music’s in my life a lot. I mean I come in listening to music every day and every time I’m in the car I’m blasting the speakers.
“Before (training and games), when I’m trying to get hyped, I listen to music and it’s a huge part, it’s a huge art.”
Breaking through as a teenager with New York Red Bulls, Juan went on to switch his soccer from East to West Coast when he moved to California with the now-defunct Chivas USA in 2012. Without much question, his transfer to New England the following season heralded his best play yet as he hit seven goals in 14 games to help the Revolution into the end-of-season playoffs for the first time since 2009.
His return to the Revs in 2015 meant being reunited with the likes of Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez and Lee Nguyen, with whom he had established a prosperous connection during his previous stay. There was also forward Teal Bunbury, a player he had already linked up with for the National Team and even thrown out the Dougie with after an equalising penalty from Bunbury against Chile in January 2011!
The most recent Revs player to feature on this site was Charlie Davies back in April 2014, who earlier this season joined the Philadelphia Union. The 17-cap U.S. striker told then how Bunbury’s pre-game song selections in the locker room would leave him wondering if they were about to play a competitive game or head to the beach to be around a bonfire!
With Juan, he keeps it altogether more ‘game time conventional’ with a Houston rapper currently making waves in the industry his main go-to artist of the moment, alongside Mr. ‘Sean Don.’
“I really always followed Big Sean and I’m really into Travis Scott right now.”
Although Juan has of course had a glimpse of European soccer and may very well get the opportunity again in the future, he certainly found a team in which he could belong when he came to New England. After Stoke, there were options from Spain, Belgium, Germany and Holland, but at that point he also had stability for his young family to think about.
While in Europe, he stayed in touch with how the Revs were doing and they in turn kept up with his progress. Upon re-signing with the team last January, he shared his delight and he now resides in Boston with his wife, Vanessa, and their one-year-old daughter, Catalina.
Juan is not alone in feeling that sense of identity with the club. A defender drafted in 2009 knows all about it, showing versatility, fortitude and resilience over his years with New England, and as Charlie Davies touched upon two years ago, the North Carolina native in question is still the man bringing the locker-room heat in 2016, as Juan confirms.
“Darrius Barnes, always; he’s always got the aux cord. He’s the hip-hop guy so he plays a bunch of that.”
Coming from the coffee-famous city of Manizales, Juan moved from Colombia to New Jersey at seven years old. Living in Barnegat Township, he grew up playing basketball and soccer and he remembers the sacrifices made by his mother and stepfather so he could thrive.
Spending so much of his upbringing in America meant that it was a relatively straightforward decision when the U.S. offered him his chance at international level with the Under-17s, though he remains just as proud of his Colombiano roots. Given the Honorary Certificate of Recognition award recently at Boston’s Colombian Festival, Juan first kicked a ball around back in South America as a kid and it was also where he kicked off his music listening, with classic 90s novelty the first into his collection.
“I was in Colombia and it was a tape and it was ‘U Can’t Touch This’ (MC Hammer).”
Signing for New York Red Bulls at 16, Juan went to the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria with the U.S. before stepping up to the Under-20 side in 2010. As well as scoring that debut goal for the full team against South Africa in front of 52,000 at Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium, he became the first U.S. Soccer Development Academy product to appear for the seniors.
Although he felt he didn’t quite receive the opportunities and freedom to fully flourish while with New York, he still displayed that creative edge where possible, as seen when he took a Jan Gunnar Solli cut-back, held off a defender and flicked up before volleying home against D.C. United. Debuting in the 2010 season, he scored six and provided two assists in 27 MLS games (12 starts) in 2011 before new horizons in 2012.
Making four final appearances for the Red Bulls, he was traded in May 2012 to Chivas for U.S. defender Heath Pearce, allocation money and future considerations. Teams around the league had expressed interest in Juan for some time but had been rebuffed by New York until they eventually agreed to let him pursue a fresh chance elsewhere.
After three goals and three assists in 20 games (16 starts) in 2012 for a Los Rojiblancos team who came last in the Western Conference, he would be part of a playoff campaign with New England in 2013. To be in a side struggling to find the winning formula can certainly be testing for any player, although he did have legendary Colombian frontman Juan Pablo Ángel to work alongside and learn from while at Chivas.
Thinking back over the good and bad of the sound-system flavours he has been around in his career, he put a veteran Real Salt Lake keeper’s offerings in the former category, and pretty much the whole of his Chivas counterparts firmly in the latter!
“Nick Rimando had a pretty good Spotify playlist whenever I was with the National Team. Other teams: when I was at Chivas it was just straight Mexican music.
“I didn’t enjoy it at all, so yeah, don’t give them any credit!”
Scoring two in six games for Chivas early in the 2013 season, Juan completed a May switch to the Revolution in exchange for allocation money and he would hit it off back on the East Coast. Starting 11 of his 14 games, he struck seven goals as the Revs came 3rd in the Eastern Conference before an extra-time loss in the Conference Semi-final to eventual champions Sporting Kansas City.
When he first signed, coach Jay Heaps knew the team wouldn’t have Juan for too long, so it seemed like it would be something of a fleeting romance. During their year apart with Juan in Europe, the Revs went all the way to the Championship game, where they were so narrowly beaten by LA Galaxy after Robbie Keane’s extra-time goal in Carson.
The flame between club and player would burn brightly again when 2015 came around and Juan was one of the players to model the team’s new jersey as it was unveiled at Boston’s House of Blues. The venue, which sits right by the Red Sox’ Fenway Park, has played host to countless up-and-coming and renowned acts over the years, and as Juan was asked for his dream concert (with any headliners, living or dead) he came up with one which would have a slight chance of selling out if tickets ever became available.
“I would like to see 2Pac and Biggie do a concert together! I’ve been to J Balvin, which is a reggaeton artist, he was really good.
“I’ve also been to Drake, Drake’s awesome.”
The Revs may have had their progress halted at the first round of last season’s playoffs but Juan did manage to come up with a show-stopping moment. Facing D.C. United at RFK Stadium, New England took the lead as Kevin Alston’s cross from the right was majestically met first time by Juan with a bicycle kick that left Bill Hamid helpless as it flew into the corner.
He is someone teammates can look to as one of the main sources of attacking impact, but what about when it comes to their listening pleasure? Has he ever been made to sing for any of his teams as a newcomer?
“Every time in my career! At club level, when I was at New York Red Bulls I sang, and the first time with the National Team in South Africa I sang ‘Billie Jean,’ Michael Jackson.
“It was embarrassing, but compared to the other teammates that went, I think I got first place!”
Turning out for the Under-23s in qualifying for the London Olympics, Juan had won many of his 20 caps for the seniors while still a teenager. The majority came in 2011, a year in which he was part of the CONCACAF Gold Cup squad that finished runners-up to Mexico.
A fellow member of the American party for that tournament was a German-born midfielder who would later become a teammate of Juan’s at New England. Juan remembers being in attendance for the current Colorado Rapids veteran’s memorable off-field performance.
“Jermaine Jones was funny with the National Team because he tried to sing and at the time he didn’t know English that well and it wasn’t coming off great. I’m sure it would have got a trending video if someone recorded it.”
Injuries and other misfortune have had a hand in Juan’s early years at pro level, although that penalty-area instinct remains intact as he targets continued opportunities for success at domestic and international level. It had been over a year since his last call-up to the National Team when he received an email informing him that he had been selected for an April 2015 friendly with Mexico in San Antonio.
Joined in the squad by club colleague Lee Nguyen, he felt a multitude of emotions at getting the call again and went into the camp eager to impress Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff. Replacing Jordan Morris after the hour, he made it a familiar ‘Dos a Cero’ scoreline in the fixture as he took down a pass from Michael Bradley and struck a low finish from the edge of the area to put the U.S. 2-0 up over their near neighbours. It was his first international goal since his leveller in a March 2011 friendly against Argentina and he dropped to his knees in emotional celebration.
Now playing in his sixth different MLS season before he’s even turned 24, Juan has returned from a recent injury to add a very important element to the Revs’ playoff push. This month, he has netted in the home wins over Colorado and New York City as well as hitting a brace in the 4-2 loss to FC Dallas in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final.
Two points ahead of D.C. United and Orlando City, the Revs are currently nestled in that sixth and final end-of-season spot and an in-form Juan could prove quite an asset. Scorer of seven goals and provider of three assists in 2015, the part of the game he adores is when the volume is up and he’s on the attack, pushing defenders onto the back foot.
Along with the fight to achieve something with the team, that kind of rush is what you train and play for. If Juan was to take that kind of energy and bless a track of his own with it, he has an idea of which teammates would be the first to get the call to join him.
“I would probably have Darrius (Barnes) doing a couple bars with me, Teal Bunbury doing a couple bars, and then the dancer in the back would be Zach Herivaux.”
Juan’s loan spell with FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie – which included three goals after he arrived mid-season – may be his only competitive European action so far but he has spent time with a number of reputable clubs on the continent. When he was at Chivas, he joined up with Glasgow Celtic in the MLS off-season, while his work permit denial meant he could train with Stoke but not play.
Although his first real tilt at European football didn’t yield the reward he had hoped for, Juan still feels being around such a level of intensity every day, observing strikers’ movements, and generally seeing how much of a way of life the game is to so many was extremely worthwhile. He has experienced playing in a wider position on occasions and enjoys the additional touches on the ball it brings, although acknowledging that it means he’s further from the central attacking spots he favours.
When all’s said and done, though, he just wants to play, and he shares his perspective on what he views as the biggest thing his eventful past few years have taught him from a professional standpoint.
“Soccer-wise, focus on preparation, which is hydration and recovery. It starts to pay a toll later on.”
After Juan’s explosive emergence as a teenager, his Red Bulls coach at the time, the vastly experienced Hans Backe, got the club’s media personnel to limit the amount he talked to the press to a few minutes every week or two. The objective was to temper the considerable hype around him so he could focus as much as possible on his game, with Juan himself back then feeling that the pressure on him faded whenever he stepped onto the field.
Facing the likes of Neymar and Lionel Messi on his way up with the National Team, he was the very first Red Bulls Academy product to graduate to the first team and he had another undisputed star on his side. At just 18 years old, Juan had Arsenal and France great Thierry Henry arrive to take a locker right next to him, and the majestic forward had time to offer him while they were teammates.
The World Cup, European Championship and UEFA Champions League winner told him he could play in the Premier League one day and gave pointers while also complimenting his game. Teams like Henry’s fiercely competitive but supremely gifted Arsenal were the ones he had looked up to growing up and he remembers how Henry always treated him like an equal.
For his affable side, and so many other reasons, the ex-Barcelona man is the career teammate Juan would choose if he could get any player from the history of the game to join him on the training field for some shooting practice.
“Thierry Henry. I mean I had him as a teammate when I was in New York and it was always fun after training.
“He always cheated so he could win, but it was fun!”
For as long as an on-field career lasts, the learning curve never truly ends for players, and for Juan off the pitch, he feels becoming a dad has been the last piece in him growing up. The artist known as ‘Swagudelo,’ ‘Swags’ and the like is enjoying his game at the moment, with potentially much more still to come from him and his teammates in 2016 alone.
While the field or stadium can differ from one game to the next, the essence of the sport holds true. The regular final question of these interviews is about paying tribute to that sense of enjoyment and freedom, as the player pictures their own 5-a-side team containing themselves and four of those they have worked with in their career.
Throughout the past few years, players from all around have named their lineup, with all kinds of reasons behind their individual choices to make up their team. As Juan pulled together his quartet to step into the small-sided fantasy arena with, the Stars and Stripes were waving proudly.
“I would choose Tim Howard in goal. Defender – Carlos Bocanegra.
“Midfielder – Michael Bradley. Forward – Clint Dempsey.
“I just felt like they were ‘best American’ – you see I kept it all-American – so that’s the best team of that kind, I think.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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