The 17-year-old has gotten off to an electric start in the new MLS campaign after making a huge effort to improve his all-round game in the off-season
It takes about five seconds to see why so many people involved in American soccer are absolutely enamored with Cade Cowell.
Don’t believe it? Just watch his recent goal against D.C. United. And don’t blink either.
In those five seconds, he crosses the halfway line, making a darting run down the right side. He beats his defender for pace, taking him wide before cutting in centrally. He then calmly collects the ball, looks up, and places a shot towards the near post, past an onrushing goalkeeper.
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It is that pace and directness which make Cowell so special. He is an athlete on another level, even by American standards.
At just 17 years old, he is already built like a grown man; 6′ tall with a strong upper body and legs that seemingly never stop moving once they reach warp speed.
But being an athlete is not quite enough to truly become a force. Cowell knows that, and so too does his club, the San Jose Earthquakes.
And that right there is where the scary part comes in. Cowell is now starting to figure out everything else outside of those highlight reels.
Cowell, who became the Earthquakes’ youngest-ever signing at age 15 when he penned a Homegrown deal in 2019, truly began his breakthrough last season.
He made 17 appearances for the club in his debut campaign, starting four times while providing a goal, an assist and plenty of glimpses of his unlimited potential.
But this season, something is different. Through just five games, Cowell already has two goals and three assists.
And they have come in a variety of ways. There have been mazy runs, looped crosses and Kevin De Bruyne-esque through balls that few in the American player pool could even dream of hitting.
If you watch Cowell’s game this season, there is something about him that is so much better.
“A lot of it was just repetitions,” Cowell tells Goal in an exclusive interview. “Over and over and over again by myself this off-season. I really wanted to [score more]. I could have had a lot of goals one-on-one last year during my first season. This year, that’s not happening again.
“This has to be it; it has to be a different result. I want to make an impact. I want the ball to go in.”
To understand how Cowell turned into the attacking dynamo that he is today, you have to understand his upbringing.
The Mexican-American son of a multi-sport mother and a college football-playing father, Cowell naturally fell into sports during his early years. But it was his grandfather that got him into soccer, starting a team when Cowell was four years old.
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Cowell soon rose through the academy scene in Southern California, playing for the likes of Modesto Ajax and Ballistic United. He and his family drove all over the Bay Area, hours at a time, allowing him to eventually make his way to the Earthquakes academy after scoring 33 goals in 32 games for Ballistic’s Under-15s in 2017-18.
“Even then, I was just like, ‘Yeah that’s cool,'” he says. “After the season, I remember Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy, Quakes, just like five huge clubs wanted me to come over to the academy and talk about a pro contract.
“It was just nuts. I’d never even thought of that, so that’s when I was like ‘OK, this could maybe be my life.'”
But there were notable struggles along the way. As a child, Cowell battled Osgood-Schlatter’s disease, a knee ailment that afflicts children experiencing growth spurts. The disease left him in pain throughout his teenage years, keeping him out of the picture for the U.S. youth national teams at crucial times.
But because of that, he developed a love for working out, as he learned to spend his time lifting in the makeshift gym in his family’s backyard.
“Physically, it was fine, but mentally, it was very tough,” he says of the pain growing up. “There’s that one wall you have to get over.
“For me, it was easy because I knew soccer was going to be my life, but taking soccer seriously, it’s hard. There were times when I was crying that I didn’t want to go or didn’t want to play and my dad would make me go. That first step is hard but, after that, you love it.”
He adds: “When I was younger, everything was about [Cristiano] Ronaldo, and then the more I started to realise about soccer, the more I watched [Lionel] Messi and Neymar. It’s just so fun to watch them play. It’s insane.
“I love Ronaldo’s work ethic, it’s insane, but just watching Neymar and Messi, they’re so fun to watch.”
While those three megastars helped lead Cowell towards pursuing a career in soccer, it is an MLS legend that has probably had the biggest impact on the youngster so far.
In some ways, Cowell is everything that teammate Chris Wondolowski is not. Cowell is an elite-level athlete and, for all of his accomplishments, Wondolowski is not. The veteran forward would be the first to admit that.
While Cowell’s physical skills are his biggest strength, it is Wondolowski’s brain that has made him the best goalscorer in MLS history. For years, Wondolowski has built a career out of finding that space that no one else can and putting himself into positions that no one else could see coming.
And that makes him the perfect mentor for Cowell. Cowell’s biggest weaknesses are Wondolowski’s biggest strengths and, if you watch Cowell play, it is not hard to see ‘Wondo’s’ influence on his game.
“It’s huge because that’s the thing that I’m lacking,” Cowell says. “Him helping me every day in training, like if he sees something that I’m not doing, he’ll talk to me and coach me on every little detail.
“He’ll tell me, since I’m so fast, to just wait and wait and wait so, when I get there I’m attacking the ball at full speed. Things like that help so much.
“The timing of everything, like timing when to run near post, timing when to jump. That is still the hardest part but it’s the most perfect thing. Timing is everything, and so for me with him, he times everything perfectly, and that’s why he gets himself in this situation to where he finishes.”
Take Cowell’s goal against FC Dallas for example, one where he out-thought and out-dribbled several defenders instead of just hopefully ripping a shot.
Or a sequence that should have been a goal against the Seattle Sounders, where Cowell drifted back into that little half-yard of space required to find a first-time shot that only a ridiculous save from Stefan Frei kept out.
Those sorts of moments have Wondolowski written all over them and, for Cowell, that influence is starting to click.
“I think the world of this kid,” Wondolowski said in March. “I still get to call him a kid, that’s something kind of mind-boggling as well, but you just see the work that he’s putting in.
“I’ve gotten to train [with him] just a couple of times, and that’s because I could barely keep up with him. I definitely pride myself on my work ethic, but the amount of work that he put in this off-season, I’m extremely proud of him.”
The 38-year-old added: “He’s well-spoken, thought-out, caring and that’s how he handles himself off the field as well. I think he carries himself in the locker room like that, so I want him to succeed. It’s fun to see people like that thrive and I think that he will.
“I’m literally in awe each day at just the specimen he is and just pure jealousy of the attributes he has. But his work ethic is what’s going to take him to that next level.”
Wondolowski is not the only one who has Cowell’s best interest in mind, as Quakes coach Matias Almeyda also has plenty of wisdom to impart on the teenage forward.
A member of two World Cup squads for Argentina, Almeyda has developed a reputation as one of the hemisphere’s best when it comes to working with young players.
Almeyda has taken a particular interest in Cowell, showing him videos of former Argentina team-mate Claudio Caniggia, a player that the Quakes coach likened to his young forward.
Despite Cowell’s age, Almeyda added that he believes the teenager has a bright future in Europe. He has already been linked to Barcelona but, despite all of the attention that is starting to come thanks to his hot start in MLS, Cowell says he is doing his best to focus on himself and his own game.
“I never think about it,” he says when asked about his European aspirations. “I’ll think about it if the time ever comes. Then, if everything is real, that’s maybe when I’ll think about it, but right now, I never think about it. I just focus on the here and now.”
He does have some long-term goals in mind, though.
After earning a call-up to the national team set-up in January with the combined U23 and senior team camp, Cowell wants to play his way into more international opportunities going forward. He says he was shocked by the speed of the game at that level and, after that taste, he is determined to earn more.
But, before that, Cowell’s biggest goal is to keep showing that he can do more than simply run past people. He is determined to show off his movement, the element that will take his game to the next level. He is also hoping for the chance to show that he has been working on his left foot.
“I just don’t use it,” he says with a laugh, “But I can! I can use it perfectly fine sometimes.”
If those pieces come together, MLS backlines have a problem on their hands. Cowell has already shown the ability to torment a defence, to change a game almost instantly with breakneck speed and strength to match.
But Cowell wants to show that he can be so much more than those five seconds, to prove he can be a player that can dazzle in different ways for years to come.
“Right now, I’m a winger. I like to dribble at players one-on-one,” he says. “With my back to goal, it’s still pretty challenging to me, but as soon as I learn how to do that, I’ll be a No.9, I think.”
“[Everything so far] has felt like a huge accomplishment,” he adds, “because I just feel like I worked really hard this off-season to try and come up. I feel like everything’s going well so far.
“I just have to keep going so I can be even better.”