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Cade Cowell: Why European giants are monitoring the American starlet

Cade Cowell first took the league by storm as a 15-year-old, becoming the youngest homegrown signing in MLS history.

As a U15 player for a local US Soccer Development Academy club, Ballistic United, the Stanislaus county native and former Modesto Ajax player led the nation with 33 goals in 32 games while playing against the top competition in the country. He was so impressive that the San Jose Earthquakes signed him to the homegrown contract, then had him spend the 2019 season with second division Reno 1868 of the USL. He only made one start in four appearances, but it set the stage for his first-team role with the Quakes.

By 16, he made his first-team debut with the San Jose Earthquakes, scoring a goal in his first career start. Now at 17, he’s managed to become a regular in the starting XI, producing several moments of brilliance along the way. The sky’s the limit for Cowell, who has already earned a call up to the USA men’s national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Rumour has it that some of Europe’s top clubs are tracking his progress, including Barcelona. Big things around the horizon for this teenage sensation.

This scout report will take a look at his start to the 2021 campaign, as well as the physical qualities he brings to the pitch. He’s produced some incredible highlights in this young season, so we’ll take a look at the technical qualities at his disposal. Finally, a tactical analysis of his play will show how he uses his unique qualities to devastating effect.

Data profile

Cowell made his MLS debut for the Earthquakes on 11 June 2019. Just 16 years old at the time, he went on to make 17 appearances for San Jose during the 2020 season, four of which were starts. So far in 2021, he has routinely found his name on the team sheet, starting all eight of the team’s opening matches.

When you look strictly at his data profile, there’s a mix of youthful inconsistency and a dynamic presence in the attacking third.

His attacking and shooting statistics show a player who mostly operates around the league median for centre-forwards with 200 minutes. The one exception is in his dribbles per 90 minutes where he rates in the 80th percentile. Held in relation to his successful dribbles percentage, we can see his decision-making still needs some refining as he will often dribble into difficult scenarios.

Moving on to passing and progression, his key passes, passes to the penalty area, xA P90 and accurate forward passes show he’s electric in the final third. MLS’s youngest ever homegrown signing has successfully claimed this starting centre-forward role from Chris Wondolowski, allowing the veteran to fill a more appropriate super-sub role at the backend of his career.

Stepping into the role previously occupied by the leagues all-time leading scorer is a tall task, but Cowell has taken on the responsibilities with gusto. While his development will include a search for greater consistency, his incredible pace and composure in the final third have seen him become a driving force in San Jose’s attack. The next chart shows his impact eight games into the 2021 campaign. He rates in the top half of the league and expected goal contributions among the league’s strikers. Among the 72 players in the table, his mark of 2.7 expected goal contributions rates 26th in the data set. That’s all while being the youngest striker by a two-year margin.

In addition to hitting another growth spurt since last season, growing an additional 3 inches (7.6 cm), the son of a former American football collegiate player and football/soccer star mother is blessed with incredible pace. His willingness and ability to stretch defences fits perfectly into San Jose’s very stretched, man-marking tactics. He’s an incredible weapon in transition. To give an idea of his pace, the first sequence of tactical images shows the speed in the counterattack.

As the pass is released, the starting point in the first image and endpoint in the second show him traversing roughly a 60-yard distance. He covers that ground in 7 seconds, all while starting a yard and a half behind his defender and turning the corner to have a run at goal. Since he’s taking a shot at the end of the sequence, there’s also some deceleration at the end of the play.

Even with him tapping the brakes at the end of the run, he still had plenty of time and space to release a shot, beating Chris Seitz at the near post to put the Earthquakes up by two.

Though he’s still maturing physically, his recent growth spurt has added some strength to his frame. As he has added muscle, we’ve seen him start to use his body more efficiently, shielding opponents from the ball, which is seen in the final image of the section.

Cowell’s freakish athleticism has allowed him to climb the ranks in San Jose, becoming a regular starter in the squad. His first full season in the MLS has already provided several incredible highlights, some of which will feature in this article. He’s a remarkable athlete, but there’s much more to his game than his blistering pace. He’s developed nice technical and tactical skill sets and is learning how to adapt as opponents place her greater initiative on containing him. Before hitting the tactical side of the conversation, let’s move next to the technical aspects of his game.

Technical skill

Playing striker in Matías Almeyda’s unconventional, Marcelo Bielsa-like system is complicated. The role is full of tactical nuance, uncommon defensive responsibilities and often requires a very direct attacking approach. While Cowell’s athleticism helps us fit within the system, he’s often asked to run at defenders, beating the first line of defence and wreaking havoc higher up the pitch.

Even in this demanding role, the successful actions chart, which plots successful defensive and attacking actions, shows he’s one of the top attacking presences at the #9. His 4.24 successful attacking actions per 90 minutes ranks 15th at the position. Though his 2.6 successful defensive actions P90 rates just 53rd in the data set, San Jose’s man-marking scheme often limits his defensive work to transitional moments or tracking members of the opposition’s backline.

Since he is a centre-forward, though he could potentially play as a wide forward as well, we’ll focus more on his technique and attacking actions rather than defensive technique.

Cowell has a good first touch, not only showing good ball mastery but also using his first touch to initiate his next attacking action. To make his first touch more productive, you’ll see him constantly adjusting his body orientation to allow for greater movement efficiency.

He’s a player who enjoys receiving between the lines and taking his first touch on the half turn. That allows him to run at the opposition’s backline, a clear preference and source of strength within his game.

Very much a right-footed player, Cowell actively scans the pitch as he’s moving off the ball. As he receives, he’ll often start to engage the opposition on the dribble, but he does show an awareness of his teammates and the runs they are making off the ball. In their match against FC Dallas, the Ceres, California native produced arguably his best pass of the season. After receiving in the half space between the opposition’s lines, Cowell hit a brilliant trivela into the path of Cristian Espinoza. The pass split the first and second defenders, as well as the second and third, setting up Espinoza’s goal with a brilliant through ball.

Turning now to his finishing, his first MLS goal came in his first-ever MLS start against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the former club of David Beckham by way of Real Madrid. After picking the ball up in the left-wing, Cowell cut inside on his preferred right foot and unleashed a bent shot that would have drawn a smile from Beckham himself.

While he can hit from range, his 2021 shop map shows he’s much more likely to work his way into the box before having a go. Interestingly enough, his two goals for the season came from the right half space.

Finally, we’ll look at his dribbling. His player profile in the first section shows a high-usage dribbler with good, though not great, efficiency. Part of this is down to the system, which influences his decision making on the dribble (addressed in the following section). Being more selective on the dribble will certainly help his success numbers. In terms of a dribbling profile, he resembles a power dribbler like Ousmane Dembélé of Barcelona, using his pace to push the ball by defenders and run past them rather than a highly agile dribbler like Lionel Messi.

That said, he knows how to use his deceleration to his advantage. We’ve already seen his 60-yard, 7-second sprint that produced a goal. The final image of the section gives a multi-frame view of his second goal.

Frames one and two show his deceleration from a straight line dribble to make former Barcelona and Granada defender José Martínez overcommit. Cowell pushes the ball past Martínez and feints to his right, pulling Matt Hedges out of his preferred shooting lane. Cowell moved around Hedges and bent the ball through a tight window to beat Jimmy Maurer for the goal. Though he’s more comfortable using his straight-line acceleration and deceleration to beat opponents then turn the corner, he does have the agility to get around defenders or create shooting lanes.

Decision making and tactical execution

If you’ve gleaned anything from this analysis, it’s that Cowell’s an exceptional athlete with a penchant for dribbling and composure to finish off attacking sequences. When looking at his progressive action data relative to the other centre-forwards in the league, Cowell is near the league median in progressive passes (1.91 P90) and eighth in progressive runs (2.46 P90). That stat backs up the analysis covered thus far in the scout report. He’s a dynamic attacking presence with the physical and technical qualities to exploit opponents on the dribble or by running into space.

As a 17-year-old going toe-to-toe against typically larger centre-backs, Cowell isn’t going to win every aerial ball played his way, but his response to the second ball is fantastic. In the match against DC United, he lost his aerial duel but saw the ball arrived at the feet of his teammate. Cowell’s response was to burst into the space behind his opponent, which effectively set up a 1v1 against the other centre-back.

As mentioned earlier, he has the physical and technical qualities to make a nice wide forward as well. When he has shifted into the wide areas in San Jose’s tactics, often because he’s had to track an opponent deep into his own half, he’s a willing runner into the spaces vacated by the opposition’s outside-backs, even in the dying minutes of the game. Again in the DC United game, we saw him drop deep to defend, then burst into the right-wing. With his pace, DC United could only hope to contain him as he neared the box.

One of the adjustments extraordinary athletes experience as they adjust from the youth game to the pros is that opponents are better suited to defending against pace. Part of that is the opposition’s own speed, but there’s also their positioning and physical strength to contest the run. Cowell is still learning how to adapt his dribbling to make the most of his skill set.

The sequence against FC Dallas shows Cowell in a 1v1 situation with space to run into. He takes on the defender, which is a reasonable decision, especially since success means he’s drawing the second defender away from the middle setting up a 2v1 in San Jose’s favour as they enter the box. However, he rushes into the 1v1 duel. Rather than pinning his defender, he gambles on his ability to win the foot race despite starting at a 2-yard disadvantage.

Dallas handles it well, making contact with Cowell to slow his progression, allowing the cover defender to step in and win possession. Pinning the first defender would have required another step or two, slowing the tempo of the attack and drawing the second defender closer. That may have closed the opportunity for the 1v1 duel, but it would have opened up a central pass instead, allowing Cowell to use his pace off the ball with a run behind the line.

Better engagement and timing on the dribble will certainly help his 1v1 efficiency, but one of the beauties of his game is the fact that he’s such a willing runner, on and off the ball. It’s one thing to run, but it’s quite another to consistently achieve success while stretching the opposition vertically. Cowell has that skill, which is down to his recognition of gaps in the opposition’s lines.

Against the Los Angeles Galaxy, a set piece saw the ball squirt free into the left-wing. Seeing LA move lacklustrely to pressure the ball carrier and recover, Cowell saw an opportunity to run behind the Galaxy’s backline.

Once again, he produces a 60 plus yard run in approximately 7 seconds, bursting past the Los Angeles backline. Recognizing that he is 1v3, the former Ballistic United U15 player held up the ball before playing it into the path of his nearest runner, setting up a shot.

Finally, touching on the defensive side of his game, Cowell shows of willingness to track back and pursue the opposition, but I’d love to see him turn his intelligent, ultra-competitive attacking anticipation into a similar defensive quality. San Jose uses man-marking defensive tactics, which often simplifies his defensive work. Rather than looking for interception and tackling opportunities within the team’s press, there’s a greater focus on just winning the individual battle.

In our final image, Cowell is dutifully man-marking in the right-wing, but his proximity to the ball has essentially put him in a second defender role. Once the attacker wins the 1v1 duel, first defender responsibilities transfer to the second defender. However, Cowell remains in his man-marking role on the wing, allowing the opponent to dribble freely into the attacking third of the pitch.

Part of this is down to Almeyda’s tactics. Cowell is generally willing to role up his sleeves and engage defensively, though his defensive IQ lags behind his attacking intelligence, which is quite common among forwards. More common defensive tactics would likely help his transition into the MLS, but Almeyda’s approach, much like his mentor Bielsa, brings an uncommon set of tactics to San Jose.

The demands of the system and Cowell’s willingness to put in the work offer great insight into his character. He’s a hard-working, committed player who shows excellent focus on his tactical responsibilities. The image above was a case of defensive anticipation and adaptation, which comes with time, but the core values and character traits that lead to promising careers are present in Cowell’s defensive contributions.


Perhaps the scariest thing about Cowell is that he’s already such a talented player but still has room to grow. As he continues to earn starts at centre-forward, a position that often sees players peak later in their careers, Cowell has the potential to become a top scorer in MLS or even shine in Europe’s top leagues.

This is his first full season with regular starts and minutes, so he’ll have to show consistency throughout the season and an ability to adapt as he becomes the focal point of opposition match analysis. He has the benefit of working with Wondolowski, whose creative movements and intelligent read of play have allowed him to claim the league’s all-time scoring record and play to his current age of 38.

Cowell is one of the top prospects in MLS. He has all the tools to become an exceptional player and a regular call-up to the national team. He’s in the early stages of his career, but the right mentality and consistently performing at a high level will vault him to the top of the American player pool.

Cade Cowell is the name you don’t want to forget. Europe’s elites are tracking his progress. Time will tell if he’s the next Great American export to make waves in Europe.