Legion Star Juan Agudelo: ‘At Home’ After Meteoric Rise & Stall

Juan Agudelo looks back on his hot start in MLS and with the USMNT from his current vantage with second-division Birmingham Legion in the twilight of his playing days.
By: Frank Dell’Apa
In 2010, Juan Agudelo burst onto the scene with an MLS debut with the New York Red Bulls and, later that year, scored on his international debut with the U.S. National Team. That was all a full week before his 18th birthday.

But before those milestones, Agudelo kicked off the year in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The match marked his first appearance as a professional – and it turned out to be significant as it was a Red Bulls’ home victory.

His pro debut was also a lesson in footwear.

“I wore the wrong size cleats,” said Agudelo, now with the USL Championship’s Birmingham Legion, one of only two second-division teams through to the 2023 Open Cup Round of 16. “And I didn’t find out until the second half. Typical 17-year-old thing. It was my first start as a professional player and I wanted brand new white Adidas cleats. They put them out, and I grabbed the wrong ones.”


Wrong Shoes – Right Moves

It took more than a couple blisters and some hard-nosed defending to slow Agudelo, though, as he went the distance in the Red Bulls’ 2-1 Open Cup win over the Philadelphia Union on April 27, 2010.

Since then, Agudelo, now 30, has competed in the Open Cup with three teams – Chivas USA (2012 Semifinalists); New England Revolution (2016 Finalists); and the Legion, who beat two Chattanoogas (the Red Wolves of USL League One and FC of NISA), USL league mates Memphis 901 and now face Charlotte FC of the top-flight MLS in the Last Sixteen.
Agudelo in the 2016 Open Cup Final with the New England Revolution
Agudelo scored twice in the 2016 Final, but the Revolution could not hold off an FC Dallas rally in a 4-2 loss in Texas. “We really wanted to bring a trophy back to New England,” Agudelo recalled. “Everyone was talking about it and the Krafts [Revolution owners] really wanted one.”

The Revolution took control as Agudelo converted in the sixth minute, but they lost momentum after Gershon Koffie and Je-Vaughn Watson went down with injuries late in the first half.

“I remember thinking, this couldn’t have been a better start to a Final,” Agudelo said of the 2016 match at Toyota Park in Frisco, Texas – now home to the National Soccer Hall of Fame and the Open Cup’s original prize, the Dewar Cup. “‘Man, we’re about to win a trophy.’ Then, Dallas turned up the heat and, unfortunately, we came out in second place. It was still really cool to play in a Final and score two goals.”

A Fresh Start in the Old Cup

Agudelo helped the Legion get off to a winning start in this year’s tournament, converting twice in a 4-1 victory over the Chattanooga Red Wolves and scoring again against Memphis 901 in the Round of 32. The forward, who spent 12 years in MLS and one in Europe, has been impressed with the competitive level at the Legion.

“It’s a respectable league, and I’ll tell you, first hand, coming in here I didn’t think I’d see similar athleticism [to MLS] and difficult defenders to go up against,” Agudelo said. “But I do see that. I remember Aaron Long [who played for four USL teams], and I see others coming up with that ability. There are definitely players in the league that can make the jump.”

Agudelo still has plenty to contribute, according to Legion coach Tom Soehn.“His holdup play is second to none,” Soehn said of Agudelo. “How he uses his body, holds the ball, brings people in, is something he’s developed over the years.”

Agudelo in action (and in his pro/Open Cup debut) with the New York Red Bulls in 2010
“If I was in MLS, coming off the bench in the 80th minute with a team winning and needing to hold the ball up,” Agudelo said, “I feel like to this day – humbly speaking – there are very few players in MLS that can do that as well as I could. I’ve been lifting a lot and working really hard, and that has helped me with that part of the game, making it better than it was before. I try to use that with the special ability I have.”

Agudelo has impressed via a combination of size and skill from the start of his professional career. After his first season with the Red Bulls, he joined teammate Tim Ream as the USMNT traveled to Durban for a victory over South Africa in November of 2010. Four months later, he paired with Thierry Henry in the Red Bull opening-day lineup, scoring in a 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders. The next week, Agudelo converted for the U.S. in a 1-1 draw with Lionel Messi’s Argentina at MetLife Stadium.

But Agudelo failed to convince Red Bulls coach Hans Backe.

Hard Times on the Bench

“I was actually getting more minutes with the National Team than my club team at the time,” Agudelo said. “From what I remember, I didn’t handle it. I didn’t understand. I always thought the player doing the best in practice would get the most minutes and start during games on the weekend. But it was just me being young and thinking, academy-wise. Sometimes coaches need to build trust in game situations rather than practice.

“Coaches go with what they’re comfortable with, what gives them a consistent feeling in the game,” he added. “And [Backe] had his guys from Europe come in and he knew what to expect from them in a game.”

Nor did Agudelo’s international success continue – he scored only once more for the U.S., in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in 2015. The player attributes his decline to a failure to obtain a work permit after being acquired by Stoke City in 2014.

Agudelo with Birmingham Legion this season
“That was the hardest moment of my life,” Agudelo said. “Because, at the time, I was told to just stand by and wait for the courts on the work permit. My wife was pregnant, and I was just on standby for a good amount of time. I practiced with Stoke City, but they were away a lot, so I was just home watching shows with my wife. It felt like a very privileged jail cell. It was devastating to the point I didn’t like soccer any more…”

Agudelo played on loan with FC Utrecht in The Netherlands in 2014, but went nearly a year without performing in a competitive game before returning to the Revs in 2015.

“As a soccer player you can’t really take five months off and then come back that fast,” Agudelo said. “I tried to come back fast to MLS and injuries started piling up. I wasn’t educated enough to understand how to keep muscles at a certain ratio for my height, weight and age. It created a lot of hamstring issues.”

As a hold-up striker, Agudelo also became the object of hard-hitting attention from defenders.

“I remember Bobby Boswell, it should have been a red card, hit me in the same exact spot on my hamstring,” Agudelo recalled of a 2015 MLS playoff game between the Revolution and D.C. United. “It was like I was targeted, or something, and I had to come out in the playoffs.”

That game symbolized the highs and lows of Agudelo’s career, as he converted an acrobatic bicycle kick then ended up limping off the field.

Value of an Old Pro

“He played for the national team at a young age and a whole lot of us haven’t done that,” said Soehn, who was a Revolution assistant coach under current Legion President/GM Jay Heaps. “How you judge a guy, look back on his career and knowing him as a person, he’s a great person, and a great teammate. He gives you whatever he’s got every game.”

Agudelo’s Revolution days came to an end after Bruce Arena declined his option for the 2020 season. Agudelo played for Inter Miami and Minnesota United, then joined the Legion last year.

“Bruce was honest with me,” Agudelo said. “He said my price point was not at the point of my playing level. It’s crazy, but I respect Bruce so much that even though he didn’t pick up my option, I understood. He made the right decision. He’s the real deal, one of the best coaches I ever had.”

Agudelo’s time of being a Premier League prospect and MLS star are in the past, but he seems content with the Legion.

“Everything is good here, I’m actually happy here,” said Agudelo, ahead of a clash with an MLS side and in striking-distance of the Quarterfinals. “I like the non-prima donna way people go about living here. Everyone helps out. Everyone picks up trash [at practices], brings equipment to practice. Back in the day [in MLS] we would shower and get changed and not worry about anything else.

“Now we carry our own bags,” he said. “It’s a weird kind of team-bonding.”

Dell’Apa is a regular contributor to usopencup.com and the Boston Globe. He’s now in his third decade of writing about American soccer.