When Jozy Altidore left the United States' Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica last Sunday with an injury, coach Bob Bradley had no choice but to call on an 18-year-old New Jersey kid to produce on one of soccer's biggest stages.
And Juan Agudelo did.
The 6-foot, 180-pound striker, who was born in Manizales, Colombia, but moved to New Jersey at age 7, excelled at RFK Stadium in Washington. Agudelo's contributions reached a high point late in the second half when he muscled a Jamaican player off the ball out wide on the right. He then put a perfect cross into the box for Clint Dempsey to finish for a goal, and the U.S. won 2-0.
Participating in these high-profile matches doesn't faze the teenager who lived in Barnegat Township during his middle-school years and now lives in North Jersey with his godparents.
After all, Agudelo became the youngest player ever to score for the U.S. Men's National Team when he bagged the winner in a 1-0 victory over host South Africa in a friendly in November.
Agudelo, who also plays a significant role for the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, topped that feat by scoring in a friendly for the U.S. in a 1-1 tie with world power Argentina at the New Meadowlands in East Rutherford in March.
Pretty heady stuff for a teenager, but Agudelo's not letting his ego get too big at this point.
"Sometimes I lie on the couch and I just say to myself, 'Oh, wow,' " Agudelo said in a recent phone interview, with more than a hint of shyness in his voice. "I keep telling myself that this can keep happening for me, but I know there's a lot of hard work ahead. I want to accomplish so many things, but I've got to keep my focus."
In good company ...
Sharing a field with players such as Thierry Henry, who played for Arsenal in the English Premier League and Barcelona in Spain's La Liga, and Rafael Marquez, also a Barcelona veteran, has affected Agudelo. He's eager to please his more experienced teammates - both on the practice field and during games.
"When Thierry Henry arrived at the club, he acted just like anyone else," Agudelo said. "In the locker room, he treated me like an equal, which really impressed me. He asked me for my opinions, and he listened to me. I was prepared for him to tell me what I should be doing, so his approach was something that was just amazing. I try to learn everything from these guys that I can."
And, amazing is an adjective that some soccer experts are attaching to Agudelo. His movement around the field, paired with the confidence displayed when he has the ball at his feet, has fans thinking that the U.S. has finally found a game-breaking forward.
Agudelo has a slashing, dangerous style to his play, which is something the U.S. men have sought for ... well, forever.
"He's a young, unique talent with very good one-on-one ability," said John Harkes, ESPN's main soccer color commentator. "It's always refreshing to see a young player with a positive mindset take players on and get to goal. It's imperative that he continues to develop and learn the game. The U.S. hierarchy must be careful not to suppress his creativity, while still adding discipline within the respect of the team and game as a whole. Juan must continue to be a student of the game. It's a long process."
Family sacrifices ...
But taking the more difficult, yet rewarding, path to success is something to which Agudelo is accustomed. When his mother, Olga, separated from her husband, the prospect of raising a son in the the United States was extremely daunting. But that's where Agudelo's stepfather, Jim Rostron, stepped in.
"They made a lot of sacrifices for me, and it's my duty to pay them back," said Agudelo, who played basketball locally when he lived in Barnegat and played his club soccer in Toms River. "I never wanted to be average - I wanted to be more than that. Jim and my mom made sure I was set up to do everything my ability allowed me to do, and I'll never forget that."
Agudelo started as the lone striker in the U.S. men's 1-0 win over Panama in the Gold Cup semifinal Wednesday, logging 65 minutes and heading a ball on to the crossbar in the first half.
With Altidore out for today's Gold Cup final vs. Mexico at the sold-out Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., expect Agudelo to see plenty of playing time against the U.S. team's biggest rival.
Even though Agudelo has become a rising star within the U.S. program, he could have chosen to play for his native country. The cultural pull of representing a soccer-loving nation such as Colombia instead of the soccer-lukewarm U.S. might have produced some emotional conflicts in some players, but Agudelo's resolve never really wavered.
"It wasn't that tough of a decision," he said. "I love Colombia, but I've lived here most of my life. When I got called up to the U.S. under-17 national team, it was a no-brainer. I consider myself a Colombian American."
And the decision by a talented Hispanic player to play for the U.S. will resonate with many.
"Without a doubt, a key for substantial growth in U.S. soccer is the immersion of the American Hispanics into the player pool," said Max Bretos, an ESPN anchor. "The talent to take us to the next level at the World Cup is there, waiting to be tapped. Although U.S. soccer has made strides toward accommodating this segment of the population, there is a long way to go. However, having a player like Agudelo onboard really helps."
But Agudelo is a reluctant poster child. He's still young, and that's reflected in how he spends his spare time - when he's not training or playing a game with men often 10 or 15 years older than him.
"I like to play the FIFA video game when I have some time to chill," Agudelo said. "It gives me time to relax and not worry about the pressure."
And, does he play as himself on the game?
"Oh, yeah - I'm either the Red Bulls or Chelsea (from the English Premier League)," he said. "When I control myself on the screen, we always win."
Contact James Clark:
Today's Gold Cup final: U.S. vs. Mexico
When: 9 p.m. on FSC, Univision