Sunday March 27th, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the journalism world, one of the rules you often hear is this: Three examples qualifies as a trend. And we now have three examples that 18-year-old U.S. forward Juan Agudelo is a promising forward to watch at the international level.

Agudelo played in his third U.S. game here Saturday night, coming on as a second-half substitute and scoring the equalizing goal in a 1-1 tie against a full-strength Argentina. It was an opportunist's strike, cleaning up the garbage by knocking in a rebound from Carlos Bocanegra's set-piece header. But it was also the third example we have seen that Agudelo can add energy to a game and contribute goals.

In fact, Agudelo has been involved in the last three U.S. goals, all as a second-half sub: scoring against Argentina, drawing a penalty that led to the tying goal against Chile in January and hammering home the game-winner on his debut at South Africa last November.

DAVIS: U.S.-Argentina player ratings

Considering his latest goal came against a team that featured Lionel Messi, the world's top player, Agudelo said this one gave him an even bigger charge than his debut goal four months ago.

"Argentina is probably one of the best teams in the world, and they have the best player in the world," Agudelo said. "Just for him to recognize me and know that I scored against them, it's pretty amazing."

Agudelo came on at the start of the second half, replacing midfielder Jermaine Jones as the U.S. switched from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-4-2. The five-midfielder set had failed to produce much offensively and isolated Jozy Altidore up top in the first half. But the two new players in the second half helped: Timmy Chandler bombed up the flank from his right back position and got off four useful crosses, and Agudelo brought energy and swagger as a second forward.

"Whenever you put [Agudelo] on the field you can tell he has confidence," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "He puts himself in good positions, and when the ball comes he's strong and he has something where he's looking to try things, things that make sense."

Agudelo is still remarkably young, having just turned 18, and he only scored his first MLS goal for the New York Red Bulls last week. Yet he often seems older than he is. After Saturday's game, Agudelo said Argentina had put the U.S. "under a lot of duress," marking perhaps the first time that an 18-year-old soccer player had ever used the word *duress* in a postgame media scrum.

If you ask anyone else inside the U.S. team, they'll say they're merely trying to protect Agudelo right now. After all, three examples may be a trend in journalism, but they don't mean much in the scheme of a playing career.

"He's done well," said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan. "A lot of us are always cautious to anoint someone the king right away. We've seen a lot of guys come in and do well for a few games and then not have good long careers for us. The goal is for him to keep growing. But listen, scoring goals is not easy at this level, and he's proven he can do that. We've got to keep moving him along in the right way."

Or as goalkeeper Tim Howard said, "[Agudelo] has been impressive in training and had another impressive performance. I think there have been a lot of Juans who have come and gone. There have been very few guys who've been able to sustain it, so I think that's the challenge for us and for him."

At some point Agudelo will likely get his first U.S. start, perhaps even as early as Tuesday against Paraguay. But even if he comes off the bench again in Nashville, it's worth pointing out that Bradley is already fast-tracking Agudelo, choosing to bring him into this week's senior national team camp instead of having him join the U-20 national team in Guatemala.

And Agudelo, to his credit, is repaying the coach's faith, trying to keep grounded while the world learns more about him with each U.S. game.

"A lot of people are expecting more things of me and stuff," he said, "but I just put those things to the side and focus on my game and improving and staying humble. My family's doing a great job of that, and me, too, I feel. I feel like I just have to concentrate on the game, what happens on the pitch."

If he keeps doing that, then opponents like Argentina and Messi will have to take notice. At the end of Saturday's game, Agudelo went and said hello to Messi. As the young American put it, "I just wanted to introduce myself: *Juan Agudelo*."

Funny thing was, he already had.

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