FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Now in his 10th year as a professional, Juan Agudelo has played just about everywhere in the attacking third of the field. He’s been a number nine, a second forward, and a winger. At times in recent years he’s even occupied more of a number 10, playmaking role.
Where he’d never played – not in his more than 200 appearances in MLS, nor at the international level with the United States, nor in the Dutch Eredivisie – was as a box-to-box central midfielder.
That was, at least, until Sunday night at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Deployed as part of a three-man central midfield in the New England Revolution’s 2-1 win over the LA Galaxy, Agudelo was the primary link between defense and attack. He tracked back tirelessly to support defensive midfielder Luis Caicedo, and pushed forward to support Carles Gil and the rest of the attack.
And all the while, his motor never stopped.
“I played close to that role (at times), but this is the first game ever that I’ve actually played defensive a bit more in the midfield. I enjoyed it,” said Agudelo. “As the game went on, as I got more touches on the ball, confidence kept rising and I felt more comfortable.”
Truthfully, Agudelo looked confident and comfortable from the opening whistle and throughout the 90 minutes. He completed 45 of 48 passes (a team-high 94 percent) and terrorized the LA defense with his driving runs, while he was also immense in New England’s transition game, leading the Revs in both possession gained (14) and interceptions (4).
Shifting Agudelo into a central midfield role was one of the first significant tactical tweaks we’ve seen from Bruce Arena, who took over head coaching duties early last week and was on the sidelines for the first time on Sunday night in LA.
Arena, who coached Agudelo with the U.S. National Team and knew him well from their shared time in LA (Agudelo with Chivas USA, Arena with the Galaxy), was quick to point out that the 26-year-old could still see time as a number nine, but said that right now Agudelo can best help the team in midfield.
“He’s a good player; he’s experienced, he’s got good physical tools, good technical tools, and there’s no reason why we can’t ask more of him,” Arena said of Agudelo. “He’s always been a player that you can get more out of, so we’re going to push him real hard and try to make him the best player we can make.
“We’re still evaluating our players and making adjustments; we’re not doing everything all at once. We’ll hopefully find a way to have the right combinations and the players in the right spots on the field to make our team as good as it can be. Right now, we’re asking Juan to sacrifice a little bit and complement Carles and Luis, as well as (Teal) Bunbury. He’s giving a little to help make the team better.”
Whether this proves to be a long-term move for Agudelo remains to be seen – a 90-minute sample size is admittedly small, despite promising early returns – but it wasn’t just Arena who felt like Agudelo’s initial outing in central midfield showed potential.
The player, too, believes there could be a future in that role – that is, now that he’s “survived” his first 90 minutes there.
“(My) initial reaction was, Bruce may be on to something here,” Agudelo said. “I believe in him. I have played (central midfield) in my youth days and I’ve done pretty well there, but overall I’m just happy that we were able to get the three points and that I survived that position.”