Medina-raised Caden Clark left home when he was 14 to chase the soccer dream from an Arizona academy all the way to Germany's famed Bundesliga.
Six years later, he's back in Minnesota and back in MLS, where at 17 he made a spectacular debut with the New York Red Bulls in 2020.
Now 20, Clark has returned via transfer to play for his hometown Loons and before his family and friends for the first time. Acquired from RB Leipzig in Germany's top division, he arrives as one more piece in a season of change that has brought new sporting director Khaled El-Ahmad, a head coach (yet to be hired) and new players, too.
"It's about timing," Clark said. "It's really exciting for me and my family, an opportunity to be part of this club in this time of transition."
Former Loons coach Adrian Heath signed Clark in September to a two-year contract with two club options stretching to 2027. Then Heath was fired near season's end a month later. The two had nurtured a relationship for years, even after Clark convinced the Loons to trade his homegrown MLS rights to the Red Bulls in October 2020. He sought the trade as a steppingstone to play in Europe for the Red Bulls' affiliate, Leipzig, in Germany's top division.
That same night, Clark started his first MLS game for Red Bulls and scored the game-winner on a right-footed volley from 18 yards out. The next game, he became the youngest player in MLS history to score in his first two games and then the youngest to score in the MLS Cup playoffs.
It remains the highlight of his still-young career, which includes three seasons spent at FC Barcelona's residency academy in Casa Grande, Ariz. starting when he was 14.
He played 47 games for the Red Bulls in two-plus seasons, ending in 2022.
After such success, he was sold to Leipzig the next summer, but he was loaned out three times after that, once back to New York.
"The way I came out set some expectations," Clark said. "The bar was raised high, but I wouldn't want it any other way. Having the expectations, it's a privilege to have that. It's pressure, but it's good pressure. I hope the pressure is high here as well, and I hope I can deliver on that."
Clark spent last season with RB Leipzig but never played a game there. He was loaned to Danish team Vendsyssel for the final four months before he joined the Loons to start 2024.
He did train beside and watch current English Premier League players Christopher Nkunku (Chelsea), Dominik Szoboszlai (Liverpool) and Josko Gvardiol (Manchester City), who were teammates in Leipzig last season.
"You see their habits and how they approach the game every day," Clark said. "When I tell you every training is a game, that's how they approach it, seeing they made it and still acting like they didn't make it."
He calls it an education, all before his 21st birthday in May.
"A lot of life lessons, on the field, off the field," Clark said. "The game is very different over there in a lot of ways: culture, languages, food, time changes. There's a lot that goes into it, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It has helped me develop into who I am today. You have to be grateful for both sides of it."
He has played as many as four midfield positions as a pro, but he played an attacker's role outside right early in preseason training.
"It's a great opportunity for him here," Loons interim coach Cameron Knowles said. "He has struggled to find playing time, but he has come to a familiar environment still at a very young age with the tremendous experiences he has had. His attitude and effort have been excellent."
Like Clark did some 40 years after him, Heath left home at a young age to chase that dream. They exchanged text messages often and would meet for dinner whenever Clark was home from New York or Germany.
"I was very close to Adrian," Clark said. "Learning from him outside being Minnesota's coach was important for me. When the opportunity came around to join him here, I was more than excited. I'm thankful to him for bringing me here, but now we're in a new transition. We've just got to take it as it is."
Clark will do so without Heath directing him, but with his family and friends watching in Minnesota. The Loons open their season Feb. 24 at Austin FC and play their home opener against Columbus on March 2.
"I've thought about this moment from the first time since I signed," Clark said of the home opener at Allianz Field. "I'll feel emotions because I haven't been able to play in front of my family and friends ever in my life. That moment will be very special, and I'm going to embrace it."