Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but RB Leipzig may have jumped the gun on hiring a colleague discovered in New York.
After weeks of speculation following the close of the MLS season, it was reported by Bild on Sunday that Caden Clark will not be joining Leipzig for the second half of their Bundesliga campaign as initially planned when he was officially transferred to the East German giants in June of last year. According to the Bild report, the 19-year-old Minnesotan did not even travel to Germany this winter to undergo a speculated trial process before deciding his immediate future. The most likely outcome is believed to be an extension of his loan back to New York into the 2022 MLS season.
After a charmed beginning to his professional career in which he rose to relative stardom in the New York first team after being recruited to the club’s reserves, Clark has seen an equal amount of misfortune in recent months. During the same week in June when his transfer to Leipzig (and concurrent loan to New York for the remainder of 2021) was announced, Clark came down with a case of appendicitis that wound up sidelining the teenager for months. Only in the final weeks of the MLS season did Clark begin to earn minutes and regain his pre-surgery form, but unfortunately such a resurgence appears to be too little, too late in the eyes of a Leipzig side working with much thinner margins this spring.
As you may have heard, Leipzig recently changed coaches. Former New York boss Jesse Marsch was dismissed in December just four months after being promoted from the Red Bull Salzburg job. Not only does the failure and cancellation of the Marsch hire mean the end of the braintrust that arranged the Clark transfer, but it also means new hire Domenico Tedesco is facing a desperate fight for points in the second half of the season as Leipzig sits in 10th place, well outside continental qualification position.
While Clark’s potential is still ample as proven by exploits for the United States national team program in recent weeks, Leipzig requires more than potential for perhaps the first time in the insurgent club’s Bundesliga history. After emerging as the flagship for Red Bull’s holistic future-focused footballing philosophy, Leipzig is now facing its first-ever crisis scenario without the presence of departed guru Ralf Rangnick, one in which the club may begin compromising on its famed principles. The sort of precise, outside-the-box transfer philosophy that allowed Leipzig to quickly climb the ladder of European soccer appears to have run its course, and Clark appears to be an early casualty.
As for the New York outpost of the Red Bull project, they may have seen this coming a long way. During a July interview with MSG, New York sporting executive Kevin Thelwell stated it was possible that Clark’s loan status could be extended into the 2022 MLS season, and planning for such a contingency appears to have proven a sound maneuver on Thelwell’s part. The chance to bring back a known entity has proven difficult this offseason, and Thelwell will be eager to give head coach Gerhard Struber less homework wherever possible in his second preseason with the club.
Though attacking midfielder Lewis Morgan was signed from Inter Miami last month, the recently-confirmed departure of Sean Davis leaves the Red Bulls somewhat thin in creative central positions. While the need for upgrades in such an area was cited by many observers at the end of 2021, the need for continuity has become an increased priority for a New York team that has released a significant amount of starters this offseason. Clark’s return to form was quietly crucial to the team’s last season playoff push, and another season of the ambitious teenager improving his consistency can only help a New York team that still has two months to make additional signings anyway.
The desire for shiny new toys is a natural state of mind for fans of any soccer club, particularly one as fixated on the future as the current New York Red Bulls. But a week after the club let one pillar of the squad slip away, it will likely linger in Thelwell’s mind that keeping known entities around can be just as important.