In the life of a young athlete, when you’re buzzing wide-eyed from game to game, you rarely remember specific dates. But the shock of the news two months ago was jarring enough that Juan Agudelo still remembers all the details.
“It was November 21,” Agudelo says.
The British Home Office, after granting work permits in recent years to borderline U.S. national team players like Robbie Rogers and Tim Ream and Alejandro Bedoya, had refused to give one to Agudelo so that he could join the Premier League’s Stoke City on a free transfer this month.
“I thought it was a prank from my agent,” says Agudelo, a 21-year-old forward whose 17 U.S. caps since 2010 (and one in the last year) weren’t enough to land the work permit on appeal. “I had to keep asking him: ‘No, seriously, tell me the truth, what happened? What happened? What happened?’ Guys have gotten work permits with [fewer] caps and minutes. It was shocking, to say the least.”
Fortunately for Agudelo, his is a story of crushing disappointment followed by a positive resolution. Not only did Stoke manager Mark Hughes still want to sign Agudelo to the same multi-year contract, but the club would help find him a loan destination in Europe where paperwork wouldn’t prevent him from playing for now. This week Agudelo chose from among 10 offers to join FC Utrecht in the Netherlands on a six-month loan.
Even though Agudelo could have made more money at a club in the Turkish top flight that wanted him, he says he chose Utrecht to give himself the best shot of doing what Hérculez Gómez did in 2010: Going on a goal-scoring tear to force his way onto the U.S. World Cup team.
“I wanted to make the right decision,” Agudelo said from his hotel in Utrecht on Monday night. “It was a huge decision with regard to the World Cup coming up and hopefully making a splash in some type of way to get called, because that’s always been my dream.”
Agudelo said due to paperwork there’s only a slim chance he’ll be available to play for Utrecht this Saturday against Roda, but he hoped to be ready for a league game on Feb. 2 at home against Ajax. Utrecht is currently in ninth place in the Dutch Eredivisie.
To put himself in the discussion for the U.S.’s 23-man squad for Brazil, Agudelo says, “I need to keep myself healthy, get consistent playing time almost every weekend playing 90 minutes, get a starting spot on Utrecht, help them move up the table and score goals. Just doing what a player in my position should do, whether it’s assists or holding the ball up. I believe there will be people watching games, so I just need to play my game.”
If that happens, Agudelo think it will also increase his chances of landing a U.K. work permit, too.
At a time when several players in the national team pool are returning to MLS from Europe — think Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Clarence Goodson — Agudelo is one player making the more traditional move from MLS to Europe. That may help him with U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has proclaimed his desire for U.S. players to be challenging themselves at the highest level possible. Agudelo said he had an offer to stay in MLS with New England, but “it wasn’t flattering,” as he puts it.
As for Stoke’s offer? “I was extremely flattered by that,” Agudelo says. He spoke to a number of people before deciding on Utrecht for the loan, including Klinsmann and U.S. forward Jozy Altidore, who played in Holland for AZ Alkmaar.
“We had dinner about a week ago in London,” Agudelo says. “He told me how great a league it is for strikers and talked to me about some teams that would be good for me and push me to become a better player. He said, ‘Look, no matter where you go, if you go to Holland you’ll get chances to score.’” Chances to score. It’s all Agudelo can ask for as he starts the next phase of his career in Europe.