Juan Agudelo Exclusive: NYRB Star Talks MLS Chances, Thierry Henry and USMNT

Ned Harwood@@RBStampedeContributor IIIMarch 17, 2012

Juan Agudelo Exclusive: NYRB Star Talks MLS Chances, Thierry Henry and USMNT

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    Juan Agudelo is one of the most interesting men in sports. 

    It has been just under two years since the New Jersey native signed with the New York Red Bulls of MLS, then just beginning his dream of playing soccer professionally. While memories from two years ago can be refreshed in our minds like yesterday, the amount of things that can happen in that short 24-month period are remarkable. 

    Just ask Juan Agudelo, who has emerged onto not just the MLS scene, but the US Men's National Team and Olympic radars as well since his first day on the job. 

    It would take hours to write an accurate biography of the recent life events of Juan Agudelo, but general background certainly needs to be stated in order to understand his quick ascension into our weekly television programs. 

    In October 2010, Juan made his MLS debut against Real Salt Lake for the New York Red Bulls. A little more than a month later, he scored the game-winning goal in his USMNT debut against South Africa in the Nelson Mandela Challenge.

    In March 2011, Juan scored against South American giants Argentina in his home state of NJ to earn the Yanks a 1-1 draw. The following MLS season, Juan was selected by MLS commissioner Don Garber to play in the MLS All-Star game against Manchester United at Red Bull Arena. 

    Now, after winter training stints with Vfb Stuttgart and Liverpool, Juan prepares for what will surely be one of the most eventful years of his life as the 2012 Olympics, Red Bulls season and 2014 World Cup qualifying all get ready to take place.

    By the looks of it, Juan Agudelo's frenetic career shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

    With so much to look forward to, there surely is a lot on his mind heading into the middle of 2012. Fortunately, through the Team Kellogg's organization, I got a quick look inside what the young star is thinking via a phone interview earlier this week. Want to know what Juan is thinking heading into such an eventful year? Click through this slideshow to see the topics discussed in our interview!

A Look Ahead: 2012 MLS Season

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    While Juan really broke into the spotlight via the USMNT, it is the Red Bulls who utilize his talents throughout the club season. Last season, he made 27 appearances for the MLS giants and was a commissioner's selection to the 2011 MLS All-Star game against Manchester United.

    However, despite boasting a strong squad full of big names such as Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, the Red Bulls struggled throughout 2011 and were eliminated in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. 

    This season has the same high expectations for the club, as fans are hoping for a far more successful season in Harrison.

    Juan stated that the feeling in the locker room heading into the season is "very good"—hopefully a sign that all sorrow and pity from last season is gone from memory.

    He then went on to say that if they are "smarter at times" and have "better decision making," they will hopefully be able to achieve what they desire. 

    What type of of achievements are we talking about? "In this league, just to try and make it to the playoffs."

    While I am sure Red Bull fans may have bigger prizes in mind, we have learned the last couple of years that the MLS playoffs are a place where anything can happen. The Red Bulls certainly have the talent to make a run in the playoffs and take home the MLS Cup—it is just a matter of whether they have the discipline and structure to get there.

    With no Gold Cup to steal players away from the club this year and a revamped attack and back line, the playoffs certainly look reachable for the Red Bulls in 2012. 

Playing Alongside Thierry Henry

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    Of course, being a forward on the New York Red Bulls has many more benefits than just the stardom and fame that come with the big lights. Agudelo is often paired at the top of a 4-4-2 formation with Arsenal and French legend Thierry Henry, who joined the Red Bulls in the summer of 2010.

    Playing alongside one of the all-time greats evidently has its advantages, as unlimited amounts of lessons and advice can be provided to a young, developing player like Juan. 

    However, the biggest advice apparently is not relevant to Juan's game with the ball, but rather without it:

    "I've learned a lot. Just how to position myself and how to put myself in areas where I can be in good positions to score goals."

    He also mentioned that Thierry has described how to "use the defense to your advantage" in order to find the best ways to get behind them. 

    These are the types of tips that could be vital to the development of a young player like Agudelo, who is naturally a striker and likes to take on defenders. This "off the ball" advice will surely help make his game more dynamic and elusive in the attacking third. 

Liverpool, Europe and Beyond

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    Next, we talked about Europe and the massive opportunities Juan has overseas. Agudelo had training stints with Vfb Stuttgart and Liverpool over the winter in order to keep his game fresh after the end of the MLS season.

    These are the types of opportunities where young players like Juan can see the speed of the European game and gain valuable experience before making the inevitable switch. 

    Juan obviously was very positive about the training experiences. 

    "It was awesome to play with those guys and to play at a level, a level I have been watching since I was a little kid."

    He said it was great "being in the locker room and seeing how they go about" as he had the chance to be around world-class players such as Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel.

    "Go out there in the days training and playing games on the weekends—it was just a great experience for me to see live."

    Over the last couple of months, there has been a lot of speculation as to whether Juan will be heading to Europe soon, given the immense interest in the Red Bull product. 

    I first asked him whether he would be interested in an official move across the pond. 

    "Yeah. Of course. I feel like in order to test yourself and test your ability you have to play with the best ones out there, and I mean, everybody knows that Europe is the place to really be surrounded by those types of players." 

    Evidently, he confirmed the first part of the transfer rumors by saying that he would want to move at some point, but whether that move was soon or not didn't get as committed a response.

    "I mean, no rush. Whenever the time is right."

    Juan's relaxed and mature approach towards Europe is a fresh change to the often trigger-happy Euro attitudes of many young Americans. Hopefully, Juan can make the move when he has enough experience and confidence to thrive in a new system. 

Olympic Qualifying and the USMNT in General

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    Possibly the biggest event on Agudelo's calendar now is the 2012 Olympics in London, as he is currently at the US U23 camp training for next week's qualifying matches in Nashville.

    This week, Agudelo was one of the 19 players called into Caleb Porter's U23 camp, which opens play on March 22 against Cuba. A lot of the other U23 call-ups have been past teammates of Agudelo, such as Teal Bunbury and Brek Shea. 

    I asked him about the chemistry on a squad with so many familiar faces. 

    "Oh, it's awesome. We have such a great team and a team that has experience."

    A number of the 19 named to the roster have been playing with each other for years on the US youth National Teams, meaning the U23 squad has a very tight bond and great chemistry that will help its cause next summer. 

    He also was quick to state his enthusiasm towards the whole experience and what this team has to offer.

    "I'm really excited to get this tournament underway because the potential that we have is really great. And the mentality and philosophy that we have in our game is the way every team wants to play."

    His expectations were certainly high for this summer as he said, "We definitely see ourselves performing well. I think we will be able to surprise a lot of teams and nations with our ability to change the way our soccer is played."

    When asked as to whether he appreciated Caleb Porter's aggressive 4-3-3 formation, where he has more room to take on defenders as a forward, more than the traditional 4-4-2 that he plays with the Red Bulls, he seemed generously indifferent. 

    "I mean, I'll do whatever is necessary to help out the team. If it means being a lone forward, than that's what I have to do. If it means playing like a central forward, that's great." 

    The conversation then turned to his USMNT Senior experience and how just twelve months ago Juan scored his second national team goal against Argentina in front of his home state at the New Meadowlands. 

    The moment still lives in the hearts of USMNT fans and him today. 

    "It was pretty surreal. Being home and having 80,000 people watching the game. And I helped my team tie the game against a team like Argentina and a player like Lionel Messi—it was just something to remember my whole life."

    And if the cards play out like most see them, that won't be Juan Agudelo's last memorable moment in a USMNT jersey.

Life in the Klinsmann Era

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    A lot has happened since that New Meadowlands thriller, though, as last July the USMNT went through its first coaching change since 2006.

    The regime change left young players like Agudelo questioning their roster status, since a new era hinted at significant player pool changes. Agudelo's international career fortunately has stayed steady: He has been called up by Jurgen Klinsmann multiple times since the summer. 

    A new coach obviously means new tactics and philosophies, and a manager like Jurgen Klinsmann brings high expectations as well. In the locker room at least, Jurgen has fulfilled the players' expectations. 

    "Jurgen is a great coach. He's a great person also and can tell you what he wants from you as a player. He's really positive which also helps a lot."

    Agudelo also mentioned how the optimistic attitude of Klinsmann shows off in his coaching philosophy. "He really encourages free play and to take chances."

    Coming from a completely different background and professional career than former national team coach Bob Bradley, Jurgen Klinsmann obviously has brought new concepts and tactics to the training facility. One would expect a style very similar to the great German teams of the '90s that Jurgen was a part of.

    Some of the biggest new concepts Jurgen has introduced are "ways to create triangles all over the field. Whether it is with a diamond midfield or a flat midfield."

    Jurgen also "encourages a lot of crossing and a lot of chances to be in the box," something that we did not see as often under Bob Bradley. 

    These new tactics clearly are showing their worth as the USMNT has been undefeated so far in 2012 and is coming off a historic victory in Genoa over the Italian National Team. Such a significant victory surely shows the massive strides that American soccer is taking to try and play at a level competitive with all foreign powerhouses.

    Juan shared my enthusiasm over last month's victory. "It's great. The country is advancing in the sport so fast and it is catching a lot of people by surprise."

    Juan also mentioned how these upcoming qualifiers and events are going to help in the team's quest to prove their relevance to the world. 

    Of the upcoming events, few are bigger than the USA's matchup vs. Brazil on May 30 at Fed Ex Field. Your ticket is awaiting you. 

More on Juan and Team Kellogg's

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    With World Cup qualifying, the Red Bulls' season and the Olympics on his schedule, Juan obviously has a very big year in front of him. However, he is not alone in the upcoming months to the Olympics this summer. Juan is also a part of Team Kellogg's. 

    Team Kellogg’s is an amazing group of athletes who remind fans everywhere that each day is filled with the potential to achieve your goals when you start it off right. These athletes, including Juan, believe that breakfast is the key to a great start.

    For more information on Juan Agudelo and Team Kellogg's, click here.

    Also don't forget to like Kellogg's on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Kelloggs

    Cheers and thanks for reading!