I promise you, I don’t like it either.
I’d prefer it was different. I’d prefer Caden Clark stayed in Harrison for a decade and won every trophy imaginable. The idea of loans, dual-ownership, and pre-arranged transfers has always been one of the more unappealing aspects of following modern football for me. So much about this move is affront to romantic notions of team building and community lore that I and many other humble, honest sports fans possess.
But the somewhat open secret that Caden Clark is on his way to RB Leipzig is officially out, so I must write a blog about it, and I must write one in a way that seeks to illuminate at least some of the logic at play for the New York side of the Red Bull equation...and honestly there is a lot of it.
The timing probably could have been better than in the middle of a season where Clark has been arguably the New York Red Bulls most valuable player. The 18-year old’s four goals lead the team and the optics of him already being rendered temporary are unflattering. But at the same time it’s a move and announcement that clears up the growing anxiety about Clark’s future, and as OaM’s Eric Friedlander points out, the timing of officially finalizing a long-planned transfer now offers the Red Bulls extra salary cap room to work with ahead of a pivotal summer transfer window where a team that has the potential to contend could use a few extra bodies to line up with Clark.
Does the Clark move count as a score for those who enjoy describing New York as a farm team to its European sibling? This would amount to the second transfer (after Tyler Adams in late 2018) from New York to Leipzig in the history of the two clubs. So yes, I suppose you could consider the New York Red Bulls a farm team - but only if you also consider this weekend’s opponents Atlanta United a farm team for selling on title-winning building blocks like Miguel Almiron and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Only if you also consider European giants such as Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund farm teams for losing every cycle of top talent to Barcelona and Bayern. Only if you also consider the Red Bulls to be a farm team to Belgian giants Anderlecht, a club that has bought just as many players from New York in recent years as Leipzig and Salzburg combined.
The fact is that in the constant-churning food chain of global football, any player of value (or manager of value) is always on the move higher up eventually. The Red Bull organization’s attempt to properly harness this constantly-escalating energy of global football’s transfer frenzy and stay on the cutting edge of it rather than sway in its wind should put fans at ease rather than exasperation. Indeed these sensible practices are the only reason Clark put on a New York shirt at all.
While it may seem as if Clark is a local-bred product plucked from obscurity, in reality the Minnesotan was in the sights of Leipzig as much as New York from the start of his Red Bull journey. Much like his New York teammate Wikelman Carmona, Clark was a rare free agent prospect identified by Leipzig scouts and set up with New York for logistical ease and trust in the quality of the development setup in Harrison, Montclair, and East Hanover. A player of Clark’s pedigree with the FC Barcelona academy program in Arizona would have had options with countless European clubs and could have and likely would have bypassed MLS entirely if not for New York’s presence in one of the world’s most revered football factories.
As brightly advertised by the club yesterday alongside the transfer announcement, Clark is the first poster child of a new frontier for the club’s youth development pipeline, one that is now broadened to the entire country. As covered both in club content as well as this year’s Bleacher Report documentary The Academy, New York is seeking to be at the forefront of new rules allowing for players outside of designated MLS homegrown territories to join league academies. In the years to come it will be even easier for the Red Bulls to sign a player like Seattle-raised reserve forward Austin Brummett than it was to sign Clark’s rights away from Minnesota. As the rise of American players in Europe both increases the demand for such players and leaves many of them spoiled for choice of club, being positioned to capture those players could pay dividends to every level of the New York depth chart for a long time - and also doesn’t get in the way of the club bringing in high-priced senior talent.
A player like Caden Clark - a teenager from Minnesota with a talent ceiling well beyond Major League Soccer - was never going to belong to New York in any meaningful way. Indeed nobody belongs to any team in the purgatory of modern football where sentiment has long since taken a back seat to high-stakes financial competition. In this context, that we will get to enjoy Caden Clark for the beginning of his journey (a beginning that still has what will feel like a long six months left to go) should be cherished by the Red Bulls faithful rather than commiserated. Now we just have to root for his appendicitis to heal.