Many, many parents believe their children are deeply and uniquely talented when it comes to sports. But for Caden Clark’s mother and father, the signs of a special soccer gift took presented themselves quite early, and quickly.
His dad Chris recalls a call he got from one of his son’s teachers on a frigid winter day when the New York Red Bulls’ teenage phenom was a mere 7 years old.
“I answered my phone, and it was a Montessori teacher and she goes, Chris, we really need you to come in and observe Caden, we think he has some socialization issues,” Chris Clark told MLSsoccer.com in an exclusive conversation this week. “I'm thinking, oh my gosh, what is going on. So I go there and of course it’s 15 degrees outside because it’s Minnesota, and he’s got his snowsuit, his snow boots on, and he’s in the far back of the playground.”
Young Caden was gamely attempting to play some 1v1 soccer with a schoolmate despite the cold conditions and heavy insulating layers they were cloaked in – alarming teachers who saw two alienated kids, but inspiring dad.
“Amazing,” chuckled Chris. “I said, you need to leave this alone, let this be, because this has nothing to do with socialization, this has to do with the joy and the love of soccer.”
That occasion proved a fateful preview of Caden’s meteoric rise in the game. As you’ve probably seen by now, Clark announced his arrival on the MLS scene with a bang this month, scoring two pretty goals in his first two matches for the Red Bulls to set tongues wagging across North American soccer.
“He’s such a student of the game,” said his agent, Lyle Yorks of YMU Sports. “There’s so many qualities that separate Caden, you can talk about some of the intangibles like passion, drive, focus, commitment. He’s driven to continue to get better each and every day. But as a player his soccer IQ is so high; he rarely gets caught with the ball at his feet, he sees things very quickly on the field, he's got the technical ability to execute in tight spaces at high speeds. So he's really unique in terms of that.”
It’s a moment years in the making for a player who’s been preparing for this opportunity more or less since that day on the playground. While neither of his parents had played the game, his dad’s career as a performance coach with a specialization in exercise physiology guided them towards soccer as a fun sport with holistic movement and fitness benefits that also “had some identity to it.”
The Medina, Minnesota native first picked up the game at age 5, and very quickly showed a natural aptitude – and crucially, an intrinsic motivation to dive headlong into the game, shrugging off suggestions of other sports.
“He would sleep in his uniform,” said his father. “When he was 8 he was playing three years up [in age group]. It just resonated with him, the tactics of the game, the vision of the game. … he actually was really starting to stand out above his age group, and being able to play at a higher level with greater and greater decision making.”
By age 13 Caden was playing for the Minnesota Thunder academy, at the time the highest-level youth club in the Twin Cities area, and was selected for a US Club Soccer id2 trip to Spain to compete in the Mediterranean International Cup, one of the more prestigious youth events in Europe. His displays there drew the attention of scouts from several big clubs, including mighty FC Barcelona, who told the Clarks that Caden had a place in their famed La Masia academy if only he had a Spanish passport.
That experience opened up the family’s conception of what was possible for Caden, and they set about finding the best route for him to work towards the dream of a professional career in one of Europe’s biggest leagues. After a successful trial, Caden was offered a residency spot in the Barca Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona, FCB’s main outpost in North America, and they seized the opportunity despite his tender age.
Immersed in the rondos and cerebral groundings of Barcelona’s possession-centric style, Clark continued on his steep upward trajectory. His family sifted through his mother Stacie’s Austro-Hungarian geneaology in search of a line on a European passport that would allow him to move across the Atlantic at age 16 like other American prospects, only for the necessary documents to prove elusive.
Last year the Clarks accepted an invitation from VfL Wolfsburg to visit the Bundesliga side for a trial stint. While they were there, Chris got an unexpected phone call from Sean McCafferty, the director at Barca AZ, informing them that he was set to move to New Jersey to take charge of the Red Bulls’ academy – and that he wanted to bring Caden with him. At his urging, they traveled southeast from Wolfsburg to visit RB Leipzig, RBNY’s German sibling club, where the teenage midfielder made a strong impression.
Red Bull made a compelling pitch to the Clarks, explaining how their USL and MLS clubs in the United States could best prepare him to chase his European dream. Those close to Caden decline to discuss the specifics of the arrangement, other than to express confidence in the global organization’s long-term plan for him. And given how quickly he’s found his feet as a professional, first as a standout with New York Red Bulls II in the USL Championship and now as an impact arrival in MLS, even the most aggressive timeline may look eminently reasonable before long.
“It’s a kid playing high right now; high on life and high on the energy of making his debut, and things are falling into place. And yeah, he has certain qualities,” said RBNY interim head coach Bradley Carnell after Caden’s golazo vs. Toronto FC at midweek. “When all of this comes together and a kid’s got a chucker in his boots, yeah, there’s wonders that can happen. We see it all the time, it’s great that he can express himself in this way and in this manner and expose teams and find the right moment.”
The Red Bulls believe in Clark strongly enough to send a package of allocation money to Minnesota United, who held his MLS territorial rights by way of his childhood there, and everyone involved agrees that this is just the beginning.
“You couldn't write a better story. It's been a long time coming for him and the family and a lot of sacrifice to get to this point, moving away from home and really 100% focused on pursuing a dream,” said Yorks. “The great thing about Caden is that he's really focused and grounded. So when you speak to him, it’s not ‘I've arrived,’ it’s ‘I've got so much more work to do and this is exciting.’”
Noted his dad: “He realizes how fortunate he is to be in the situation he’s in. Is he definitely riding a wave right now? Sure. Will it probably end? Sure. But Caden has the best intentions to put his best foot forward to make that team win. And to do the best job he can in making that team win. And I hope that that translates when people see him play.”