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Angel has meant the world to Red Bulls, and to MLS

November 22, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Jones is a Times staff writer.

When Major League Soccer decided a couple of years ago to allow its teams to circumvent the salary cap if they so desired, it opened up a whole new world.

England's David Beckham came to the Galaxy and showed how clubs that choose celebrity over substance don't necessarily prosper.

Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco came to Chicago and taught his fellow Fire players the fine art of diving and feigning injury, along with some genuine soccer skills.

Brazil's Denilson came to Dallas and showed how a few rubes in Texas can be taken for a lot of money.

And Colombia's Juan Pablo Angel came to New York and proved that the MLS designated player rule isn't all bad.

Angel (pronounced "AHN-hell") has been far and away the best of the league's foreign acquisitions under the so-called "Beckham rule," at least in terms of on-field performance.

The 33-year-old from Medellin, Colombia, is the prime reason why the Red Bulls will be playing in Sunday's MLS Cup final against the Columbus Crew in Carson.

Beckham and Blanco might put people in the seats, but Angel puts the ball in the net -- without all the histrionics -- and he earns his $1.6 million a year.

"His presence in the locker room is invaluable to this team," said New York goalkeeper Danny Cepero. "I think if you were to come in and not know who Juan Pablo was, really you wouldn't think of him as a superstar. He's just like one of the regular guys."

Acquired in April 2007, the forward has played in 47 MLS regular-season games and has scored 33 goals -- numbers that are consistent with his entire 16-year professional career.

Even Crew Coach Sigi Schmid can't help but sing his praises.

"I think they have, in my opinion, one of the premier strikers in this league, if not the premier striker in Juan Pablo Angel," Schmid said. "He's a classic center forward. Good in the air, can hold the ball. He's lethal with his finishing. He's certainly an important weapon to have."

In his debut season, Angel bagged 19 goals in 24 games, finishing only one goal behind MLS golden boot winner Luciano Emilio, D.C. United's Brazilian striker.

This season Angel was dogged by lower-back and hamstring injuries, but he still scored 14 goals in 23 games, fourth-best in the league.

"If Juan Pablo was healthy [all season], he probably would have had more goals for us and we probably would have won more games," said Juan Carlos Osorio, New York's coach and a fellow Colombian. "But, again, when you have adversity and when he wasn't in the starting lineup, there was a time for other players to step up and bring their level of playing higher and score some goals."

The Red Bulls are Angel's fourth club, a remarkably small number for such a lengthy career.

After turning pro at age 17, he spent five seasons with Atletico Nacional in his home town of Medellin. The goals he scored there caught the eye of River Plate in Argentina, the next stop on his soccer journey.

The goals continued to flow and the money move came in 2001, when he swapped the Argentine league for the English Premier League, joining Aston Villa for a then club-record $19-million transfer fee.

Again, the Colombian international found that putting the ball in the back of the net was no more difficult in Europe than it had been in South America (he scored nine goals in 33 games for his country), and he quickly became a Villa fan favorite.

Add it all up and Angel has played more than 400 games on three continents and scored almost 200 goals. Those are just statistics, however, and do not explain the how and why of his soccer talent.

Strikers need teammates who can put the ball on their foot or on their head at precisely the right place and time. Angel has Dutch winger Dave van den Bergh. That pair, working individually or in combination, has powered the Red Bulls, Schmid said, accounting for fully half their goals in 2008.

"Every team has good players, every team has players you need to be concerned and worried about," Schmid said. "Obviously, those are two key players for New York. They're not the only ones, but they're two of the key guys.

". . . But [Angel] is also like a lot of good forwards. Sometimes, they disappear for a little, and that's often when they become the most dangerous."

Angel has not disappeared, although he and Osorio did duck out for a private strategy session Thursday night after the Red Bulls' charter flight had landed in Long Beach.

Two Colombians plotting the downfall of Columbus.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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