After a 2020 breakout, Clark outlines 2021 goals with Red Bull & U-20s
December 22, 2020
THE 2020 MLS SEASON is over and one of the biggest stories from the league is that the youth movement continued to bear fruit. In 2019 and 2020, young players made impressive strides in terms of earning meaningful minutes, turning in impressive performances, and attracting interest from clubs in Europe’s biggest leagues.
One of the most impressive young players who broke out in 2020 was New York Red Bulls midfielder and Minnesota native Caden Clark. The year was a whirlwind for Clark, 17, who reached several important milestones.
It began with him signing a USL deal and debuting with the Red Bulls II team. Then the Red Bulls had to work out a deal with Minnesota United to sign Clark to a first team deal because Minnesota owned his MLS rights due to Clark having played for the Minnesota Thunder during his early teen years.
In recent months, Clark earned rave reviews for his Red Bull first team performances as he scored impressive goals against Atlanta, Toronto, and Columbus while also showing versatility to play multiple midfield roles.
“Going into it, I was just trying to make the squad for a couple of games and to make my debut,” Clark told ASN. “Just having that expectation low for myself really didn't put any pressure on me. Everything that I did gave me confidence - that really helped me. After my first two or three games, I felt really confident. I think for me it was coming up there, there were no expectations from anyone. There's no pressure, no nothing, nothing to lose. It was just a really good situation.”
The Red Bulls have gotten a lot of production from their USL team in recent years and it has been a constant source of players for the first team.
Clark, 17, was not at USL level for very long but he insists it was a very important piece of his development due to the consistency of philosophies and cultures between the USL and the first team.
“The USL team and the first team have the same values and style – so, there wasn't anything new,” Clark explained. “On that standpoint, I was just going from B to A... When I had my first pro game, I was just really trying to start in that USL game. Everything happened so fast that you don't realize you're developing and you're transitioning into the first team until it actually happens and you look back on it. That USL experience was just really good for me because the first team players couldn't come down due to COVID. That gave everybody a long leash.”
While the path and the progression that Clark has found himself within the Red Bulls has been smooth and well-structured, the path that brought Clark to the Red Bulls in the first place required a lot of difficult decisions from Clark and his family.
In 2015, Clark played with the Minnesota Thunder Academy and then in 2017 he moved to the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona. When the time came to turn professional, Clark was weighing options domestically and was considering the Philadelphia Union as well.
While the Philadelphia Union has been one of the top teams in the league in playing young players. Clark was sold on the Red Bulls because he felt he would be a priority within their system and he was intrigued by recent successes with Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga, and others.
“At the time, I was also looking at the Philadelphia Union and I got pretty close to them,” Clark said. “It was neck and neck with New York Red Bull. When I looked at it, it wasn't that I was better than these kids or that they were better than me. They just had too many kids. With too many kids coming it is not as easy breaking through at Philly. For me, I just wanted to be somewhere where they could really focus on a couple of youth players and give them opportunities - because you look at Philly, and they're doing a great job by the way. I just felt that the best situation for me was to try to separate myself from that."
“I think they have like 10 homegrowns now,” he added. “I think that was a little bit too much. All of those players - I know all of them and they're great players, except I that I didn't want to be lost in the crowd… They have a setup and pathway that's proven.”
Of course, Clark holds ambitions abroad as well and numerous media outlets were able to report that Clark will likely be on the move to Europe after the 2021 season with RB Leipzig. The Red Bull pathway often sees top players in New York and Salzburg move between organizations eventually find their way to Leipzig – one of the top Bundesliga clubs.
Last year, Clark spent some time in Leipzig where he spoke with Tyler Adams. The younger Clark admits he was heavily influenced by the path Adams took with the Red Bull system and it is something he wants to emulate now and in the future.
“What Tyler said is that you just you have to work your way up in the system. He started off in the academy and worked his way up while I came in at USL,” Clark said. “Just seeing what he did, and the pathway he took - obviously it played an influence. He's had success over there and what seeing what he did in MLS - playing at a super young age and playing big games in the playoffs. You don't really find it that often when a club would trust a young player to do those things. Gerhard showed me that in the playoff game by starting me. I think you'll find more of that in the league going forward. Except with Red Bull, they've been doing it for some time.”
Such talk of heading to Europe is still a ways off and the 2021 season will be an important one for him. Gerhard Struber managed the team’s playoff game after he took over for interim manager Bradley Carnell.
Part of the reason why Struber’s hire was significant was his previous stints with the Red Bull Salzburg academy from 2007-2010 and 2014-2018. The Austrian manager is familiar with the club’s philosophy both in how it plays and how it develops players.
The Red Bulls currently have recently reinvested in youth players and its academy – with its USL team being one of the youngest in the league. One of Struber’s jobs will be to oversee the process for many of the top young players in their transition into the first team. Clark is a key player of this movement.
“Even if I wasn't a starter or in the squad against Columbus, he is just so exciting to be around,” Clark said of Struber. “I can tell he is going to be a great coach moving forward and he just believes in youth. No doubt we have the hunger and the energy as a young team... I think we will be a contender because we just have that hunger.”
On a wider perspective, 2021 should only further build on the league’s youth movement that has taken place the last two seasons. In 2019 and 2020, more top young players have broken through more than any time in league history. This past year was particularly noteworthy in the important strides taken by the 2003-born players like Clark.
Clark knows many of the 2003s well and it in contact with Moses Nyeman, Daniel Leyva, Kevin Paredes, and others who are part of this talented birth year and believes they will be a big story next year in the league.
“And we're all taking this part in the youth movement - trying to get youth players in MLS to shine through and to make an impact,” Clark said. “I think that's the great thing about these kids – they can make an impact. It's just giving them opportunities.”
Of course, the Red Bulls are not the only focus for Clark as he is looking forward to the restart of the U.S. U-20 cycle. While Clark is also eligible for the following U-20 cycle in 2023, he wants to participate in the 2021 edition while playing up an age group – similar to what other top young American players like Tyler Adams and Josh Sargent have done. Clark has that goal set for himself for his first major international competition.
“That is one of my main focuses next year - to make that squad,” Clark said. “I really want to be there. And if I'm not there, I'll be very disappointed in myself not to be in. I think that's definitely a realistic goal that I can achieve if I have a good start of the year next.”