In three weeks with the New York Red Bulls, 17-year-old Caden Clark has been the best kind of disruption a team could ask for.
An energetic, driven player with an obviously bright future ahead of him, Clark’s knack for big moments already has helped the Red Bulls during a five-game unbeaten run entering this weekend’s Hudson River Derby against New York City FC. The emergence of Clark as both a valuable attacking weapon and a jolt of life to the locker room will be a story to remember for the Red Bulls in a season with a few to forget.
"I'm just trying to kind of bring the young life and energy to the team as much as I can as a younger player," said Clark. "I think younger players bring a lot of energy. I think that's just what I'm trying to do is bring life and bring excitement to my teammates and hopefully it can reflect off me and give someone energy or some positivity."
After three goals and five assists in 12 matches with Red Bulls II of the USL, Minnesota native Clark signed an MLS deal on Oct. 10 and started his debut match that same night, scoring the winner on the road against Atlanta United. Four days later, Clark demolished a ball with his left foot from outside the box against Toronto FC to earn a 1-1 draw for the Red Bulls.
In his short time, it seems Clark’s quickly sewn himself into the fabric of the Red Bulls’ locker room just as much as he has on the field.
"I think he's got a big head," Tim Parker sarcastically said about the teenager. "He walks around the locker room and tells all the older guys to just stop talking to him. So, it's a little hard to deal with, but we're told to just let him do his thing because he's a growing teenager."
Parker, the Hicksville and St. John’s product who’s captained the Red Bulls a few times this season, quickly turned serious to praise his new teammate.
"It's been fun to watch him come from USL so quickly into the first team and obviously do so well, it's really rare that we see someone score two goals like that right away when they come into the MLS and he's done a really good job obviously of blending in and owning his spot," Parker said.
Teenage success stories are becoming increasingly common in MLS as club academies continue to develop. Former Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams made his first-team league debut in 2016 when he also was 17 and became a fixture in the lineup a year later before eventually shipping off to RB Leipzig of the German Bundesliga.
Like Adams before him, Clark’s ability to mesh with his older teammates has proven valuable.
"The guys are great, they’re just keeping me grounded and really helping me out and not putting any pressure on me because coming out and scoring those two goals, personally I just want to keep scoring, and I want to try to do well for the team," Clark said. "I think it's kind of understanding that I'm trying to do my best every game and score for the team and help my team out any way I can, but the reality of it is I can't be disappointed if that doesn't happen."
With no pressure from teammates, a young talent like Clark may expect pressure from fans both home and away, but that’s not been the case with most MLS games behind closed doors during the pandemic. For Clark, that’s been a bit fortunate.
"I think it's really helped me to be honest," Clark said of starting his career in empty stadiums. "I think it's helped me taking another layer of pressure off from the critics and all that in person. Online is different, but in person it's a little bit up in your face, so I think it's definitely a good thing for me. And now I kind of want fans back to experience it."
Red Bulls interim coach Bradley Carnell, however, thinks Clark would’ve handled hostile crowds just fine.
"Caden, he's fearless," Carnell said. "I'm sure in Atlanta, we could have put him in front of 60,000, and he would have adjusted and performed in the same way. I don't think he's one to shy away, he hasn't shied away in training from seasoned pros and experienced professional so he just goes about it on a daily basis and keeps on gaining ground on the rest of the team."