Before he took the MLS universe by storm, Caden Clark was already a mentor to young soccer players in his home state.
On a recent Zoom call with fellow Minnesota Thunder Academy alum Jackson Yueill and members of MTA’s Juniors program, Clark connected with the kids by showing them a picture of himself at the U10 level.
At the time that photo was taken, the Medina native was a long-haired, bright-eyed kid with aspirations of taking his game from the academy to the professional level, and boy, has he done just that.
Since making his MLS debut with New York Red Bulls Oct. 11, Clark — just 17-years old — scored the game-winning and game-tying goals, respectively, in his first two matches. Not only has the teenager made an impression on soccer fans nationwide, but he’s also making his former coach*, Mark Yueill, extremely proud.
“Holy cow, what a dream start,” said Yueill of Clark’s first week in MLS. “I think [NYRB] is actually a great fit for him in terms of their style. While I was super impressed, I was also like ‘Yeah, he’s always had the ability to change a game and to help his team.’”
Clark competed under Yueill at Minnesota Thunder Academy until October 2017, when he joined the FC Barcelona academy in Casa Grande, Ariz. Barca’s academy director at the time was Sean McCafferty. Nearly two years later, McCafferty was hired for the same position with the New York Red Bulls.
Just a few short months after taking the job, McCafferty brought Clark to the northeast as well to play for their USL reserve team, Red Bulls II.
“They brought him in without hesitation,” said Yueill. “They [also] made the investment in purchasing his rights from Minnesota United, so clearly they believe in him there.”
Those rights, which the Loons were entitled to through MLS’ territory rights system, cost New York $75K, but they’re obviously getting some immediate return on that investment.
So how did such a talented homegrown player slip through Minnesota United FC’s fingertips?
The current procedure in place by the league is designed to incentivize clubs to develop young players in their home state under their umbrella and eventually sign them to the main squad.
In theory, this sounds like a positive system, but if the local team doesn’t fit the player, or the player decides to pursue other avenues, things get more complicated.
“We tried to get Caden to sign here,” said MNUFC Head Coach Adrian Heath. “The fact that he wasn’t in our academy obviously was an issue. We had him in, he trained a couple of times with our first team, and you could see the kid was a really, really good player.”
Heath continued, saying that the Red Bulls’ ability to bring Clark into their USL reserve team and have him in-house before committing to offer him an MLS contract gave them an even greater advantage over Minnesota, who don’t have that “second team” in place.
Another draw the Red Bulls possess is their affiliation with other clubs across the globe, specifically Red Bull Leipzig in the German top-tier Bundesliga, which has become a hotbed league for developing young American talent like Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Weston McKennie (Schalke – Juventus) and, of course, Christian Pulisic (Dortmund – Chelsea).
The contract Clark signed isn’t just to play in New York. There’s a clause that states, in 2022, the youngster will move over to play with Leipzig, who currently sit atop the Bundesliga, ahead of reigning Champions League winners Bayern Munich.
At 19 years old, the Minnesota born-and-bred talent will be afforded the same opportunity as those aforementioned players, who have become household names to soccer fans not just in America but across the globe.
“I don’t see anything stopping him now,” said Yueill. “Obviously, he’s got the physical component, the mental component, he’s working on the technical every day, the tactical is wherever he lands.”
Wherever he does land, Clark will continue to be a role model for aspiring young soccer players across the state. Which means there will probably be plenty more Zoom calls, and hopefully soon more in-person conversations, where he’ll be happy to show off the picture of the kid with big dreams.
“It was cool to see what a young Caden looked like [in that photo], and what he’s grown into now,” said Yueill.
While it’s impressive to see what Clark has grown into, it’s even more alluring to think about where his continued growth will take him.
*This post initially stated that Yueill was Clark’s academy director. At the time, Yuill was his coach.