TAMPA — A little more than a year ago, Juan Agudelo wasn't even a blip on most U.S. soccer fans' radar. Today, Agudelo could score the goal that helps the Yanks into the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup.
Agudelo and his teammates will try to win their second 2011 Gold Cup game in as many matches tonight when the United States takes on Panama at Raymond James Stadium in Group C pool play. Canada and Guadeloupe meet at 6 in the first half of the doubleheader.
"This will be my first time playing against (Panama)," Agudelo said. "From the youth level, when we played Caribbean teams it can be tricky at times because of their pace and work ethic."
Agudelo, 18, has energized the U.S. fan base in his brief time with the team. The national team's recent difficulty scoring goals from the striker spot has been well-documented. At the 2010 World Cup, U.S. strikers produced no goals.
"This past year has been good, and I'm really happy," said Agudelo, a native of Barnegat, N.J., and a rising star with the New York Red Bulls of MLS.
Agudelo made an immediate splash against South Africa in November 2010, scoring the winner in his first appearance with the U.S. team. With that strike, the then 17-year-old became the youngest player to score for the senior national team.
"I feel like the path I'm going on … I wouldn't have picked a better path," Agudelo said. "I'm just concentrating on the future now. I don't like to look back and think this may have happened too fast."
Agudelo also got the equalizer in a 1-1 draw against Argentina in March and looked impressive in his Gold Cup debut, helping the Americans to a 2-0 win against Canada on Tuesday.
"I thought (the attack against Canada) was really good at times," Agudelo said. "We're looking for more of those chances against Panama."
The United States' biggest weaknesses are Agudelo's greatest strengths — speed and creativity. Strikers Jozy Altidore and former national team star Brian McBride acted more as target forwards over the past decade, using their size and strength. Forward Charlie Davies infused some needed speed but hasn't seen any national team action since being severely injured during an October 2009 car crash.
"(I bring) some pace up front and some strength," Agudelo said. "Just different qualities that help me help the team get points."
A victory against Panama all but assures the United States of advancing out of Group C and into the June 18-19 quarterfinals. The winner and runnerup in each of the three pools, plus the two best third-place teams, reach the knockout round. Panama has yet to defeat the United States, going 0-8-2 all time. But that doesn't mean it has been a cakewalk.
The United States and Panama played to a scoreless tie in the 2005 Gold Cup final, with the Americans winning 3-1 in penalty kicks. And the U.S. team knocked Los Canaleros out in the 2007 and 2009 Gold Cup quarterfinals with narrow 2-1 wins.
"Panama's an organized team and a physically talented team," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "We've learned from the 2007 and 2009 games that they're a team you always have to play well against."