Loons midfielder Caden Clark credits mentor Chad Greenway for aiding career reboot

Caden Clark has called Chad Greenway a “big brother” and an “uncle.”

What role the former Vikings linebacker actually plays to the Loons midfielder is mentor — someone 20 years his senior who can help guide the 20-year-old through the ups and downs of professional sports.

Greenway’s thoughtful, probing and consistent approach has helped Clark over the past few years. “I’ve tried to offer him as much perspective as I could,” the 10-year NFL veteran told the Pioneer Press this winter.

Coming out of Wayzata, Clark was a soccer prodigy, but he hit a rough patch in Germany’s top flight Bundesliga at age 19.

As a toddler, Caden’s hands-on father Chris started training him in the sport, and Caden first played in the Plymouth Soccer Association and Minnesota Thunder Academy. When Minnesota United’s academy didn’t include his age group, Clark joined FC Barcelona’s residency program in Arizona. He then went into MLS with New York Red Bulls and scored a handful of highlight-reel goals before joining UEFA Champions League side RB Leipzig in 2022.

He was still only a teenager.

“Germany was a lot of good, a lot of bad,” Clark shared with the Pioneer Press in January. “The bad wasn’t soccer. Just different cultures. German people are different than we are. The culture, the food, the time change was tough. You don’t see your family. My family would come out once every three months for a week or two.

“It was a hard time and you’re not playing (in games),” Clark continued. “The team is so good. I’m training really well. I was doing really well first two months and had a little back (injury. I) made the bench a couple of times. I was thinking I was going to get my chance. … That didn’t happen. That’s part of football, but I think it’s taught me a lot. Now I’m home, so it’s totally flopped now. I’m just happy to be home.”

Clark signed a two-year contract with MNUFC through 2025, with two club options through 2027. The Loons spent a smaller transfer fee to bring their native son home.

Clark was brought back, in part, by Adrian Heath, the club’s former manager, while new head coach Eric Ramsay is intrigued by what Clark can provide the current team.

“He’s packed a lot in in a short space of time,” Ramsay said of Clark’s resume. “… It’s a lot for him to have taken in. I’m hoping that he has a period of stability in front of him where he can really strip away all the stuff that goes with early exposure, the sort of notoriety on a big scale. And he can get his head down and work and develop. If he does that for a couple of years, then obviously he’s got some really nice raw ingredients. He’s a player that I’m really excited to work with.”

Clark contributed to a crucial goal in his Loons debut, a 2-1 season-opening victory at Austin FC on Feb. 24, and he has started the past three games going into Saturday’s match at Philadelphia Union. It’s Clark’s first consistent minutes in a game since September 2022.

Ramsay can see how Clark’s spell within a Red Bulls system known for its high-pressing style will carry over to what Ramsay is doing at MNUFC.

“He’s very responsive defensively, he’s very reliable and very good presser,” Ramsay reviewed. “Very coachable, I would say in that sense, and that goes with the territory coming through a system like (Red Bulls). That’s not to take away from his qualities on the ball.

“He’s very direct, he’s very purposeful with how he uses the ball. Naturally there are some areas of his game that I’ve spoken to him about and feel like we can improve and will improve as a consequence of him being involved in this program. I think the base of a really good player is there.”

‘Regenerate his love’

Greenway’s wife Jenni works at Chris and Stacie Clark’s Tiger Fit gym in Minnetonka, and Chad started working out with Chris, a performance coach, midway through his Vikings career in 2011 and continued the sessions for three or four years. Clark said he also trained fellow former Vikings players Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen and Jerrick McKinnon as well as a handful of former Timberwolves players.

During that time, Greenway could see Caden’s passion for the game. “The one thing I noticed was just an extremely high work ethic,” Greenway said. “The kid loves soccer, the kid loved to have the ball on his foot. Chris, his dad, trained him hard. But Caden really loved the game. I think it really brought a joy to him.”

Greenway took his daughters to watch Chris train Caden and Caden’s sister Addi, who went on to play college soccer at West Virginia.

“When Caden got a little older and more mature, I really saw how crazy skilled he was, just his ability to manipulate the ball and have it on his foot,” Greenway said. “His ability to juggle and control the ball. … Caden was clearly on that trajectory of just being really, really impressive. It was quite honestly one of the more impressive workouts I’ve ever seen. And at that point, Cade was probably 10, 11, 12 years old, in that range. The things he was doing was just so impressive to me.”

As Greenway has become a mentor to Clark, the 41-year-old had to bend his understanding to reach Clark on his level.

Greenway was 24 when he was drafted into the NFL in the first round out of the University of Iowa in 2006. He, of course, never played abroad and didn’t go through the drastically different soccer development landscape.

“I really wanted to challenge him on: What do you want out of this? What are your goals?” Greenway recalled. “If you can understand your goals and what you want to get better at, you can forge a path forward. He really wanted to play, wanted to earn the right to play.”

Clark also wanted to “regenerate his love for the game,” Greenway recalled. So, Greenway’s advice was that being a pro is about more than just playing well.

“There’s got to be more depth to you than that,” Greenway relayed. “You’ve got to be a great teammate, be a great leader and a hard worker. A lot of the things that don’t really take any talent really end up separating you. I think that’s really something that was enlightening to Caden.”

Clark remembers Greenway encouraging him to join RB Leipzig.

“He’s like a big brother or uncle or something; he’s great. He just helped me,” Clark said. “He went through his career and the decisions he had to make. I think that was, like, really cool to see someone similar, maybe not go to Europe, but similar stuff. He just said basically, you’d regret it if you didn’t go, and see what it’s like. Don’t have any regrets. You can always come back home and figure it out.”

Fork in the road

Clark’s story could be completely different if Minnesota United had a full youth academy when the Loons joined MLS in 2017.

Instead, the first phase of the MNUFC development academy focused on boys born from 2004-05. Clark was born in 2003.

The Clarks were upset about how they felt Caden was left out in the cold.

“Obviously, you’re from here, you want to play here,” Clark said. “Who wants to leave home at 13? I left home at 13 (to go the Barcelona academy in Arizona). … You don’t want to leave home. My friends who were (born in 2004), they had an academy for them and they are playing there. It sucked.”

Two years later in 2019, the Clarks met with Heath and MNUFC owner Bill McGuire in Wayzata. The Loons were exploring signing of Caden but didn’t think he was ready for a first-team contract. And the Loons still didn’t have a developmental team, now MNUFC2, so Clark couldn’t go that route.

They suggested Clark sign with Minnesota and play for Forward Madison (Wis.) in USL, but that was a non-starter for the Clarks. The Loons also couldn’t sign Clark to a homegrown contract because, again, he didn’t meet the prerequisite of having played in its academy.

“We talked our differences,” Chris said about meeting Heath and McGuire. “And kind of came to a very admirable, responsible conclusion. It’s like: ‘Well, we missed one.’ ”

In 2020, the Loons announced Clark’s MLS rights would be traded to New York Red Bulls for $75,000 in General Allocation Money.

The slow initial build-out of MNUFC’s academy (and its lack of a second team a few years later) cost MNUFC a prime success story in Clark. The club has had so few players climb from its academy to MLS, and Clark could have become a poster child and proof of concept for the Loons.

Clark went on to New York where he had eight combined goals and assists with Red Bulls II in USL Championship in 2020, plus two goals in MLS in 2020. He then had four goals and three assists in 1,502 MLS minutes in 2021. Some of his goals made social media highlight reels, twisting the knife for MNUFC.

“The way I came out (at New York) set some expectations,” Clark said. “And then with the announcement of Leipzig, the bar was raised high. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think having the expectation is a privilege. … So I hope the pressure is high here as well. And I hope I can deliver that.”

While things didn’t work out at Leipzig, Clark believes he became a smarter player. “If you can change and adapt, you’re golden,” he reflected.

Heath and former Loons technical director Mark Watson did not give up on signing Clark. Heath advocated for Clark abroad when he didn’t sign with Minnesota and the pair would go out to dinner when Clark was back home. They finalized the move last summer, and Clark joined the team for preseason at the start of January.

Clark’s current run of four consecutive games played is his most consistent stretch in 18 months and his confidence is growing. After the international friendly match against Irish club St. Patrick’s last week, Clark caught up with Greenway and could show his mentor he’s starting to meet his goals.

“This is everything I’ve wanted in the last year,” Clark said. “To be back here, to start some games and hopefully build myself into the team a lot more and be an important player going forward. I think keeping that mentality of you are comfortable in a way: You are home. It’s very good for you, but it also can turn very bad. It’s making sure you stay very focused and keep distractions out of your life. Just showing up every day and act like you have earned nothing. I think that is the perspective he has given me.”

Clark, his girlfriend and his parents were on a walk near Caden’s new place in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis when they ran into Ramsay and new assistant coach Dennis Lawrence this week. Clark said it was good for everyone in his circle to meet each other.

“(Ramsay has) been brilliant, to be honest, probably the favorite manager I’ve worked with,” Clark said Thursday. “Just the details he pays attention to and the style of play he wants to play really suits me. I get to play inverted (winger) and have the freedom to come inside and stay in that tight net. It couldn’t be a better fit for me.”

“Bad things happen, but everything will work out in the end,” Clark said. “I hope to keep giving him and the team 100 percent. And they trust me; I think that is the biggest thing.”

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