It started while defending a set piece.
FC Dallas were searching for an equalizer against the San Jose Earthquakes last Saturday before the corner kick got headed away. The ball fell seemingly harmlessly to homegrown Cade Cowell about five yards outside his own penalty box, loosely surrounded by four defenders.
That pass would have been an eye-catching, highlight-reel play had it come from one of the league's leading No. 10s, never mind a 17-year-old forward from Ceres, California. Matt Doyle said on Extratime that the only American man he can recall hitting a pass of that type and quality was US men's national team legend Landon Donovan. With social media still gushing over Cowell's assist, the rising talent added a goal of his own 10 minutes later. It was among the top performances of Week 2 in MLS.
While Cowell wasn't exactly a secret talent heading into the 2021 season, his performance against FC Dallas could serve as his breakout party.
“He’s got his head on straight," Quakes outside back Tommy Thompson told media on a virtual press conference. "Last game was just the beginning.”
From the outside, it's easy to admire Cowell's physical attributes at his young age. His speed, quickness and strength jump off the page. It's easy to admire his hair, too, from a distance. But those inside the club talk about his mentality, not his physical or technical talents, nor flowing blonde hair, before anything else. His work rate, dedication to the process, desire and drive to improve.
"That's what excites me a lot about him," head coach Matias Almeyda said through a translator. "I talk to him often. He's a humble player. Humble from his heart. He listens, he wants to learn, he asks questions. That makes me think he's going to be a great player. But you have to understand this takes time."
Almeyda has long held a reputation for developing young players throughout his managerial career's various stops. He's no stranger to handing out debuts, nor is he unfamiliar with the hype that comes with strong performances by teenagers. He and his staff are ready to be patient with Cowell and, at times, shield him from the limelight with his best interests at heart.
“Matias has been the best thing for me," Cowell said. "I scored a goal and assist last game and he’s the first one to congratulate me, but the next day he’s watching video with me, showing where I can press better and fix things to make me go higher levels. He’s really awesome. He lets me make a million mistakes but have the freedom to be the player I am. He’s awesome.”
Cowell signed his homegrown deal ahead of the 2019 season at age 15 and, as a US youth international, he was known as an exciting talent. He made his MLS debut in 2020 and appeared in 17 games (four starts) last year, mostly from the bench, but has started San Jose's first two games of 2021. With the form he's in, and Chris Wondolowski's suspension after a red card last week, that run is set to continue when San Jose host D.C. United on Saturday evening (11 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
While Cowell may have taken Wondolowski's position in the first XI, the teen is also learning from MLS' all-time leading goalscorer.
“I really worked on a lot of one-touch finishing, Wondo works on that a lot," Cowell said. "He tells me it’s more about making connection on the ball, not swinging too hard, and making double-movements in behind. It’s really good for me.”
A US youth national team regular, Cowell even earned an Under-23 call-up this past January. His potential is huge, but with the guidance of Almeyda, who played at the highest levels in Europe and for Argentina, there's little chance of Cowell getting ahead of himself.
"We just can't talk about his power or his speed, because he needs to aim to play in Europe – we have already talked about it," Almeyda said. "It takes too many simple technical aspects and he needs to learn them. He's got time. He's young, very young. He's doing things the right way. But it's easy to make mistakes when you're between 17 and 20 years old. You might believe that because people flatter you that you already know everything and that's not the case. You have to keep your feet grounded, go step by step, acknowledge what your game is missing."
For now, fans and players alike will enjoy the ride.
“Cade has a ton of potential, it’s been a lot of fun watching him grow in the past couple years," Thompson said. "When he came in, you could tell right away he’s a different type of athlete. To watch him grow and impact games, it’s fun. He’s a special talent. I don’t want to put expectations or any type of limits – it’s important to let young players grow – but I’m excited to see what he can do.”