Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Thus far, this series has centered its focus on senior USMNT players, which makes sense given that the team has played eight competitive games since it began. It would be pretty silly to write 1,500 words on, say, Malick Sanogo while the U.S. is gearing up to play Mexico. Now that the USMNT will have a nice, two-month-long break, though, we have an opportunity to refocus ourselves on the future. After all, the U.S. U-20s just played in a meaningful tournament, giving fans the opportunity to see some of the uncapped players at the level right below the senior team test themselves against two of the premier youth teams in the world.
Scouts and coaches have whispered that the class of players born in 2003 is among the best in USYNT history. Ricardo Pepi and Dante Sealy have already started to show their stuff, while Justin Che and Cade Cowell have also broken through this year. Unfortunately, all that hype about a potential golden generation amounted to one point from three games at the recently concluded Revelations Cup, as the USYNT got soundly owned against Mexico and Brazil. Not an encouraging outing, though simply getting the group some playing time together after the cancelation of the 2021 U-20 World Cup was important. Cohesion matters at every level of the program, and tournaments like the 2022 U-20 CONCACAF championship, the 2023 U-20 World Cup, and the 2024 Olympic qualifying tournament loom as important proving grounds and also opportunities to redeem the U-23s’ disastrous Olympic qualifying failure. One of the players who’ll shoulder the most responsibility for the U-20s (if he doesn’t jump into the senior team first, that is) will be Caden Clark.
Who Does He Play For?
For another month or so, Clark plays for the New York Red Bulls, though in January he’ll be leapfrogging all the way up to the apex of the Red Bull Global Soccer Empire and joining fellow Yanks Tyler Adams and Jesse Marsch at RB Leipzig. Clark made his first-team debut for NYRB last October at age 17, scoring the game’s only goal and immediately announcing himself as one of the hottest prospects in MLS. Six goals from his first 15 MLS games built the hype even further, though he slowed down a bit this season after an appendectomy.
While Clark certainly blossomed with NYRB, the bulk of his development took place at the Barcelona Residency Academy in Arizona. Barcelona opened the academy in 2017, and it’s quickly become one of the most reliable incubators of talent in the country. LA Galaxy right back Julian Araujo and USMNT forward Matthew Hoppe have come through the ranks, yet the academy’s director singled out Clark as the prospect who’s drawn the most interest from the mothership. Teams at every age group play the same 4-3-3 formation and emphasize possession and counter-pressing, a style that demands a high technical level. Thus Clark has emerged as a much more technically proficient player than many MLS teens. The Barça house style is not incompatible with the Red Bull gegenpressing style, and Clark seems to have thrived playing under both philosophies. Clark is still fairly green, though he’s said he won’t be loaned back to MLS for more experience, so he’ll be thrown straight into the Bundesliga very soon.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
Clark shines as a creative passer and possession builder in the midfield. Though he’s racked up some impressive goals and assists, he’s not a forward. He prefers to play as a true central midfielder, having teammates in front of him to pass to and run in behind. He is fast enough to create problems for defenders, even if his game doesn’t rely on dribbling. Clark’s instincts in front of goal and flair for the spectacular are why he’s gotten so much hype as a prospect, but his ability to hold onto the ball, win it back, and advance it into good positions are why he’s played so much for NYRB as a teenager.
That said, we would be remiss in our duties to not show you some Caden Clark magic.
Clark is relatively small for a midfielder. While he might have the technical chops to slot in as a Bundesliga player this season, I could see him struggling with the physicality of the league. His ball-winning and tackling numbers are impressive for someone with his frame, which hints at his work rate and positioning skills.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Clark is cool and young and has a real swagger to his game, so we’re looking at a solid 11 out of 12.
Clark reportedly earned some serious attention from Barcelona itself as an academy prospect, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s already so much better at the hard-to-teach parts of the game than most teenagers in the American system. It’s just a matter of how well he can knit together his technical skills against better opposition. Can he still do ridiculous things on the ball against, say, Dayot Upamecano or other players who can punish his errors more severely? While he works hard and operates well in tight areas, he still needs to polish his game to earn serious playing time in a crowded, experienced Leipzig midfield. I wouldn’t expect too much from Clark this season, though if does break through and make shit happen right now this year, then U.S. fans will know we have someone special.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
When Clark doesn’t get slotted in the center of the midfield, he plays on the right flank. Leipzig like to play with wingbacks, so he may very well be playing (a form of) right back quite soon.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
In a universe where Clark is a no-shit first-teamer and the USMNT still plays Berhalterball, Clark might be best used as a replacement Weston McKennie with more polish on the ball and less athleticism off the ball. If he has space gobblers like Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah behind him, Clark could be a perfect fit in a 4-3-3 as the creator in the midfield trio. That’s pretty similar to the role he plays for the U-20s. The good news is, Clark is a versatile player, and I think his best case scenario is becoming a Gio Reyna-type player whose talent is such that he can get on the pitch and help the team from a few different spots.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Not close, in the sense that the World Cup is a year away and the roster and starting XI are really starting to solidify, yet close in the sense that a breakout 2022 with Leipzig could see him pushing into the first team if injuries require it. That’s a big ask for an 18-year-old just moving to Europe, so I don’t expect to see him in Qatar. However, it won’t be long after that until Clark works his way into the mix.