Caden Clark: Barcelona-trained 'killer' ready to take MLS - and Europe - by storm

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Goal

If you need a reminder of just how young Caden Clark is, ask him about his thoughts on attacking football.

There is no filter there, just pure excitement. He speaks about moving the ball, making that key pass, scoring wondergoals like the ones that saw him burst onto the scene at the tail end of the MLS season.

His voice perks up as he describes exactly what he wants to do to defenses and how he plans to do it.

But, despite how young he is, there is nothing childlike about the way the 17-year-old New York Red Bulls star plays the game. There is no immaturity, no needless movement.

There is, though, a certain determination, a certain mentality that has already differentiated him from many of the best young players in American soccer.

That mentality was evident when he scored a game-winning goal to mark his MLS debut. It sure was on display when he scored again four days later against Toronto FC, and it was definitely there when he scored the Red Bulls' lone goal of their MLS Cup play-off run against the eventual champions, the Columbus Crew.

Ask Clark who he is as a player and what he wants to be, and he is quick to give you an answer.

"It's a simple answer for me," he tells Goal. "I think it's kind of simple but it comes with a lot of things. Just being a killer. I just want to be a killer in the final third. I want to be someone that's just always attacking!

"I get excited just talking about it, because I know I can do it. It's not even a confidence thing; it's just realising when to do it.

"Just being a killer in the final third. Just going at people. The worst thing that's going to happen is you're going to lose it and, us Red Bulls, we press. So I think that's the best place to do things."

Clark has played just eight career MLS games, having joined the Red Bulls' senior team from Red Bulls II following an MLS-centric transfer saga involving Minnesota United, and that killer instinct is already clear.

His first goal was a stunning volley from just inside the box, as Clark pounced against Atlanta United to fire the Red Bulls into the lead on the same day he signed for the first team.

Four days later, he took it a step further, firing a 30-year missile into the top corner to show that his first goal was far from a fluke.

And then there was the play-off goal, where Clark scored against the eventual champions Crew on the biggest stage he has featured on to date.

"It was really cool that it all lined up," he says. "Dennis Hamlett, our sporting director, when I signed, before we got on the flight to Atlanta, he said, 'You're starting tomorrow, you know the game plan, so just score the winning goal for us'. I think it was kind of ironic that it turned out.

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"It didn't really change much after that. I still played how I play now. Of course, it's a confidence booster no matter what. I guess, the next game Toronto, I don't think I'm hitting that shot if I didn't score the game before. I think little things like that have changed, but overall, me as a player, I'm the same."

And it is those moments that have him on the radar of Europe's biggest clubs. Clark is expected to move to RB Leipzig when he turns 18 in 2022, following in the footsteps of Tyler Adams in making the leap from New York to Germany. 

It is one of the reasons he chose to sign with the Red Bulls, a club notorious for developing some of the best young players MLS has produced over the last decade.

But Clark's road to MLS, and to the Red Bulls in particular, was a winding one, and one he never planned on embarking on in the first place. 

The midfielder grew up in Minnesota, a state that was far from a soccer hotspot until the introduction of Minnesota United just a few years ago.

Already more talented than his peers from a young age, Clark routinely played up an age group, initially starting at the Under-13s level when he was just nine. He eventually joined the Minnesota Thunder Academy, where he remained for most of his youth career.

While playing up an age group, Clark was taught several harsh lessons. Since he was physically smaller than virtually every player he played against, he could not beat them with pace or strength. Instead, he had to outthink them if he wanted to outplay them.

And it was in those moments that he began to develop into a playmaker. He idolises Kevin De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes, two players that beat defenses not just with their feet, but with their minds. They always make the simple play, he says, but they make it look so damn good.

That is the player Clark wants to be: not just the type that can open up a defence with that final ball, but the type that saw that pass developing long before the ball left his feet.

"I was getting good experience at a young age of playing against physical players," he says. "It kind of teaches me how I need to play the game without being so physical because I couldn't hang with those guys. I was like 12 and they're 14. It's a big gap, huge, and an important period of your growth.

"So it was kind of just figuring out, if I can't run beside them and challenge for balls, you have to just pick your moments."

Eventually, it got to a point where Clark knew that it was time to plan for his professional career, and he sat down with his father to assess his options. He trialled with FC Dallas, unsuccessfully. It was not a good fit, he says, and both sides decided that it was not the right move for them. 

"No hate on FC Dallas at all," he says. "But they were playing a box in the midfield, and I just didn't know how to play it and was like, 'What the hell is this?!'

"I talked to Luchi [Gonzalez] after he said that he didn't think I was the best fit for them, and I said that was totally fine."

His next stop? The Barcelona academy in Arizona, which offered him the opportunity to train at the world famous La Masia academy. That trip to Spain actually ruled Clark out of one of the few national team camps he had been called up to at that point, but it did help open his eyes to see what needed to be done to play in Europe.

And that path, at the time, did not include MLS. Clark knew that joining an MLS club could limit his opportunities in Europe when his 18th birthday rolled around. Signing a contract in MLS would tie him down and, perhaps, open up transfer issues if a team priced him out of a dream move.

But then came the Red Bulls, a team that was willing to not just develop Clark, but move him on when the time was right

"I was 16 and I was at a point where if I wait to go to Europe at 18, MLS-free, I can go play in the USL," he says. "How far can the USL push me until I'm 18? We were talking about Phoenix Rising through a relationship with the Barca Academy and then hopefully go over to Barca when I'm 18. But I just didn't think that was the best situation for me.

"Looking at what Red Bull had to offer at every level, we compared it with other MLS clubs I was looking at and it was just the best overall offer from every aspect that I could have asked for. That was the decision.

"I was at a point where I needed to join an MLS club because I wasn't going to get better in those two years if I didn't compete at that next level."

Pretty soon, Clark may be taking things to an even higher level. He is already on the U.S. men's national team radar, despite not having many youth appearances to his name. He was on the preliminary roster for the U.S. U23 team that failed to qualify for the Olympics and, despite not making the final squad, is hoping to play his way into more international opportunities in the years to come.

He turns 18 in May and, when that day comes, he will almost certainly be looking towards Europe, becoming the next in a long line of young stars to make their way through the Red Bull pipeline.

Maybe he follows in the footsteps of Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane or Timo Werner in using Red Bull as a springboard into the world's elite. But, no matter what is next for the teenage showstopper, Clark is ready for his next chance to show off what a killer he can be with the ball at his feet.

"I'm not the most physical person out there, but I would try to use my other assets to fill that gap," he says. "I don't want to get into a thousand tackles.

"I'm kind of a player that likes to sit in the pocket and find gaps and passing lanes and play those one-touch passes that will really open up the opponent, and then you go from there.

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"I want the opponents to pressure me in certain situations and get compact, and then the rest of game is open. It's making these small little plays on the field.

"That's what I really enjoy: just opening up teams. I enjoy finding good gaps, good passes and just being really smart with my movement. If I get the ball, okay, it's opening up a lane for my team-mate.

"That side of soccer, that's what I really enjoy and that's what I'm best at."