Caden Clark was forced to learn a lot about himself this summer. What wasn't expected was that those lessons would be so hard to deal with.
This year, this MLS season, was about preparing Clark for his next step: a move to RB Leipzig, a step up into one of the best teams in the world. For years, Clark has known that his destination was Europe, and anyone who followed American soccer closely knew that he would get there sooner rather than later.
Clark, by any measure, is one of American soccer's most talented young stars and looks destined to follow the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Gio Reyna in the Bundesliga. A silky yet fearless attacker, Clark is a player that has a flair for the spectacular, but also the ability to make the right play at the right time.
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But this summer made Clark's path towards Europe a bit more difficult.
Clark didn't spend this summer dominating MLS after breaking out with the New York Red Bulls in 2020. He didn't spend it achieving his goals with the U.S. men's national team or by pushing his way into Gregg Berhalter's plans for World Cup qualifying.
Instead, he spent it feeling somewhat stuck as he had to learn that, sometimes, there are things that you can't simply put your head down and play through, even if you're as talented as Clark is.
"I think the most important thing for me was staying this year," Clark tells GOAL when reflecting on his first full regular season in MLS. "It's not a race versus anyone, you know? There's no race to get over there. It's all about your development, your playing time and how you mature as a person and as a player as well."
"I think what I've learned is, if you're not a dog in your mind, you have to be," he continues. "You have to be that killer in your mind as well because that was a hard month-and-a-half for me."
The month-and-a-half that Clark is referring to came over the summer when he was sidelined after undergoing an appendectomy, all but derailing his first full season in MLS. His hopes of playing for the USMNT at the Gold Cup? Gone, with Berhalter admitting that he was hoping to work with Clark before the appendectomy ruined it all.
“It’s really unfortunate how things work out sometimes, but we know that this kid has a bright future,” Berhalter said at the time. “We’re going to continue to monitor him when he goes to Leipzig.”
His spot in the Red Bulls lineup? Also gone, as form and fitness pushed Clark to the bench. Red Bulls boss Gerhard Struber remained, and still remains, super high on Clark, but the teenager was forced to deal with losing his spot in the Red Bull XI as he struggled to recover from his operation.
It was in those moments that Clark's desire to be a dog, a killer, was a detriment. Like any young player going through his first real fitness issue, Clark struggled to comprehend why he couldn't be rushed back. He felt ready to play, he wanted to play and, with one eye towards the national team and Europe, Clark also knew that he needed to play, to develop, to learn.
Well, Clark did learn something: the value of patience.
He pleaded with the coaching staff to let him play to no avail. This, they said, would take time.
That was the lesson, Clark says: that there are some things in life that you cannot rush, even for a teenager whose rise has been as rapid as his has been.
And, while the coaching staff's words didn't necessarily convince Clark, the numbers sure did. After those first few days of training following the procedure, Clark was shown that his fitness levels had dropped significantly. And, in a team like the Red Bulls built on pressing, that matters.
"It was interesting to see the data and the proof because, as a player, you don't care; you just want to play," said Clark, who has since partnered with STATSports after benefitting from their data in his own recovery. "I'll deal with the issues later, I'll deal with the cramping when it comes. You don't really want to pay attention to the data, but it was important for me to see, to just be responsible with your body because you only get one and I think this thing seeing the data helped me."
"I think just being a part of this partnership relationship is super important for me going forward," he continued. "They can create a platform not only to show why it's important,to know the data but what's the reasoning behind it? Why are these numbers important?"
Those numbers helped Clark come to grips with the first real bit of adversity he had faced as a professional.
A self-described "killer", Clark expected to spend 2020 terrorizing MLS defenses. Instead, the 18-year-old star was forced to learn how to react when things don't quite go to plan.
"Taking all these things in," Clark begins, "I had to say, ‘Okay, am I gonna let the bad things win against me or am I gonna change my attitude and my mindset to get back to where I was and where I am now?’
"It’s not the easiest thing but I got back to it and it's really made me stronger mentally. I would say if it happens again in my career, which it will, I'm ready for it."
As he said, Clark knows that there will be roadblocks in the weeks and months ahead. He's set to lead the Red Bulls against the Philadelphia Union in the MLS playoffs this weekend but, once his team's postseason run comes to an end, his focus will turn right towards Germany.
RB Leipzig are, ultimately, one of the best teams in the world, even if they have struggled a bit this season under American boss Jesse Marsch. Despite being raided by Bayern this summer, RB Leipzig are a perennial Bundesliga contender, a Champions League club that is loaded with talent all over the pitch.
Clark is smart enough to know that he can't just waltz into the Bundesliga and dazzle as he has in MLS. And, after this summer, he now understands the importance of patience and knows that his time will come.
That mindset also applies to the national team. The 18-year-old attacker recently shined with the U.S. Under-20s and, with the U.S. set to convene for a non-qualifying camp next month, Clark is hopeful.
"Unfortunately, I've never talked to Gregg before, I'm looking forward to hopefully soon having a conversation with him," Clark says. "I was really disappointed because, after my surgery, I got cleared like the day before the roster came out. So we were in communication with U.S. Soccer and really trying to get a push that I'd be okay to go. I got cleared by the doctors but obviously wasn't fit so it wasn't an easy situation."
He continues: "December 18, the first team has a friendly against Bosnia I believe in LA, and I'm just trying to keep it short-term. I can't really think about later on.
"You just have to do your job now so you have a future. That's kind of how I think about it because, after one game, you can be sidelined, for a month and a half, so it's kind of just making sure you're focused and ready for the moment."
Clark's moment will come. After shining in the playoffs last season, he'll get a chance to repeat the feat this weekend against the Union. He'll get his chance in Europe soon and, if all goes to play, with the national team.
But Clark's takeaway from this year is that you can't force those moments, that life isn't like a defender that you can dribble past and defeat. Instead, you have to wait for them, prepare for them and, ultimately, seize them when the time is right.
"I've already got through it," Clark says. "I know mentally now that you just have to believe in yourself and stick to what you know. Don't change who you are as a player. You're there for a reason and they like the way you play. You're here because of the way you play.
"One moment, for example, comes against Montreal. Came in for 20 minutes and my first touch, I almost got an assist from it and then I got an assist later on in the game.
"Really, when an opportunity comes, just be ready. Whenever that is, someone could get hurt, national team call ups, you just never know.
"I'm ready for whatever comes."