Klinsmann, Morris should heed Juan Agudelo's career as a warning
SAN ANTONIO -- In the aftermath of the U.S. national team's 2-0 win over Mexico, there were reasons for euphoria and caution in equal measure, especially as it related to the game's two goal scorers.
The Americans' 49th-minute opener was slotted home by none other than Stanford sophomore Jordan Morris. The 20-year-old amateur was making his first start, and just his third appearance overall. Granted there was a slice of luck about his goal, in that Gyasi Zardes' pass deflected off a Mexico defender right into Morris' path. But the U.S. forward made no mistake with the finish, powering his shot home through the legs of Mexico goalkeeper Cirilo Saucedo.
Morris duly celebrated his strike with the expected intensity before he was mobbed by his teammates. And overall he showed some flashes of the pace and ability to run with the ball that have had the U.S. coaching staff raving about him. Not bad for a guy who U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said was so nervous beforehand that he couldn't hit the target in warm-ups.
"I've dreamed about it since I was a little kid, scoring a goal, especially in such a big game in front of so many fans," said Morris. "It was unbelievable. [On the celebration], I blacked out a little bit. I didn't really know what was going on."
At which point the hype train tried to leave the station, and without question, the brakes need to be applied. Heavily.
U.S. soccer history is littered with players who burned brightly at the start of their international careers only to fall into some deep chasms. And Morris didn't have to look far to see such an example. He was replaced in the 65th minute by none other than Juan Agudelo.
It was Agudelo who memorably scored in his debut -- one of 46 U.S. players to do so in the history of the program -- against South Africa back in 2010. When he tallied a few months later against Argentina, he was thought to be a rising U.S. star. But injuries, and an ultimately futile attempt to join Stoke City of the English Premier League, did plenty to stunt his progress. After a seven-month period in which he found himself without a club, he signed with the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer and has been rebuilding his game since.
That process hit warp speed in the 72nd minute, when Agudelo scored an absolutely delightful goal. He brought down Michael Bradley's long ball over the top of the Mexico defense with the deftest of touches. An untimely slip by defender George Corral gave Agudelo a precious amount of space, and he exploited it ruthlessly by lashing home his shot past Saucedo. The joy of scoring his first international goal in four years then poured out of him as he brought his hands to his face.
Prior to the match he talked about his period in the soccer wilderness as "life lessons." Afterward, when asked if he thought he helped his cause in terms of making the Gold Cup roster, Agudelo sounded like a man who had taken those lessons to heart.
"I'm just trying to work hard every single day," he said. "Hopefully that goal helped. We'll see."
In the context of the U.S. program, the goals certainly come at an important time. The U.S. has long needed forward depth, a point that was driven home at the World Cup when Jozy Altidore injured a hamstring and Aron Johannsson was hobbled by a bum ankle, forcing Clint Dempsey -- who is 32, it should be noted -- to be played further up the pitch.
Bradley made it clear afterward that the team still misses the likes of Dempsey and Altidore, but he found reasons to be excited as well.
"For a kid like Jordan to get a goal tonight is great," he said. "Juan obviously had a tough stretch, but he's a talented guy. This is a kid that has something a little bit different. For both of those guys to get goals tonight we're all happy to see that."
Yet there is need for circumspection. The fact that this was very much a Mexico C team that was on display against the Americans should provide a dose of reality. Like the U.S, Mexico had none of its European-based players available, and manager Miguel Herrera even took it a bit further by leaving the likes of Marco Fabian at home.
Bradley noted that balance is required when it comes to handling young players, especially those flushed with early success.
"As a leader on the team, you want to help these guys, you have to help these guys," he said. "You have to give them confidence, you have to show them the way that we do things. You have to make them feel comfortable. But at the same time you can't hold their hand every step of the way. And you also need to see from them that they're willing to take the challenge. You don't want guys to walk in at 18 years old and think that they made it. But at the same time, you want to see a little bit of personality, a little bit of confidence."
That balance needs to come from Klinsmann as well. He has more than once spoken of how young players are hyped too soon in the U.S. The reality is that he has done plenty of hyping of his own. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the past nine months have shown that the U.S. manager did Julian Green few favors with his World Cup call-up, even if the player did score a memorable goal against Belgium. Since then, Green has scarcely seen the field during his loan stint at Hamburg. Recently, Klinsmann was talking up 18-year-old Gedion Zelalem, saying that the moment the Arsenal youngster was eligible to play for the U.S. he would be called into camp with the senior team. But he has only been in the Gunners' matchday squad twice this season, playing 45 minutes.
Perhaps Klinsmann has learned his lesson. In the case of Morris, he certainly talked up the need to have realistic expectations.
"We hope we can do a lot of the work, by talking, by communicating through [Morris'] coach and to him and also the family," he said. "And to keep them with their feet on the ground. With Jordan, I think you have a character that is very grounded. He's a smart kid, and he understands he has a long way to go.
"Does it always work? No, they need to go also through the down periods because it's not only just sunshine in their first couple of years as professionals, and we help them as much as we can. But they also have to learn that they are in the driver's seat. They decide where to go, they decided what do."
Klinsmann is often guilty of contradicting himself when it comes to players and roster selection. In this instance, one can only hope he backs up his words.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.