U.S. soccer still searching for that star striker

 

Lionel Messi. Wayne Rooney. Thierry Henry.
The list of great, pure strikers in soccer, present and past, is
full of big names.
By Terez A. Paylor – McClatchy Newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Lionel Messi. Wayne Rooney. Thierry Henry.

The list of great, pure strikers in soccer, present and past, is full of big names.

But precious few American ones.

The United States has been searching for a superstar forward for years, one who will be the focal point and score goals and command attention, only to see potential candidates come up short.

“The void for a striker on the national team, someone to come in and assert themselves and really establish a presence up top, is immense,” says ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, “and has yet to be filled, quite honestly.”

The list of those who haven’t quite made the cut is a long one – Eddie Johnson, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore, just to name a few. And then there’s the poster child for the one who got too much, too soon: Freddy Adu.

Just 22, Adu is still a young player. But if it seems as if he’s been in the social consciousness for years, it’s because he has.

By the time he was 14, Adu already had a $1 million Nike contract and was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 Major League Soccer SuperDraft. He appeared on magazine covers and late-night talk shows.

He was a can’t-miss prospect … until he did. After four relatively nondescript years in MLS, when he should have been in high school, he was relegated to toiling in lower-level leagues overseas.

And while Adu has had some success this year – he has scored four goals for a team called Caykur Rizespor, a second-division club in Turkey – he hasn’t suited up in either of the United States’ Gold Cup games and would appear to be a long shot to make an appearance Tuesday night in a must-win match against Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park.

“What we’re all wary of is having these players go through the cycle Freddy has gone through,” Lalas said. “It’s certainly a cautionary tale. We just pumped him up to incredible heights, and he couldn’t live up to it.”

That helps explain why national-team coach Bob Bradley is quick to temper the enthusiasm surrounding 18-year-old Juan Agudelo.

Agudelo is undeniably talented, with the size (6 feet, 180 pounds), speed and creativity a coach craves. But in many ways, Agudelo, who was born in Colombia and moved to New Jersey when he was 8, is still every bit the kid that Adu was when he was anointed this country’s next big thing in soccer.

Asked how Agudelo’s development is coming along, Bradley stared straight ahead and let the question hang in the air for a second.

“Juan … I keep saying the same thing,” Bradley said, before launching into a soliloquy in which he described Agudelo as talented but raw.

It was, at first glance, hardly the kind of response you’d expect to hear about a player who is widely regarded, along with Sporting KC’s Teal Bunbury, as the next – or first? – great American striker.

Agudelo, a baby-faced backup striker for the New York Red Bulls, still lives with his mom … and would have it no other way.

“It’s great, man,” Agudelo said. “I enjoy it so much because sometimes you have off days, and you get a home-cooked meal.”

More proof of his youth? The soft-spoken Agudelo is young enough not to care about the growing expectations that come with being the next great one.

“If people want to call me that,” Agudelo said, “they can call me that. Every time I hear that stuff, I just push it to the side.”

It’s up to you whether you believe him or not, but Agudelo does appear to be borrowing from the United States’ new playbook for dealing with potential stars. Downplay, downplay, downplay … and ignore it.

It’s probably no coincidence, either, that Adu and Agudelo are roommates on the road. Already, Agudelo admitted that Adu, who has declined all interviews during Gold Cup group play, has been dishing out advice on how to deal with the hype.

“He told me to just focus on soccer,” Agudelo said.

That’s not a bad idea, particularly if Agudelo wants to play overseas like U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey. At 28, Dempsey knows exactly what an elite striker looks like – he is, after all, one of the few Americans who currently play in the prestigious English Premier League – and he says Agudelo has the talent to fill the top-level void that has plagued U.S. soccer for years.

So, Dempsey said, does the 21 -year old Altidore, whose star has dimmed considerably over the last few years but is also on this year’s U.S. team.

Both are still in the beginning stages of that journey. For them to get there, Dempsey said, they’ll need to prove it overseas, in big moments, in big games.

Can they do that?

“Why not?” Dempsey said. “It’s just about fulfilling that potential, and whether they get that chance or not. We’ll see.”

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