Player Spotlight: Buoyed by faith and family, Steve Clark rolls with the punches
Steve Clark knows exactly how many passes he completed in the MLS Cup final. He rattles it off without hesitation: 22.
The Columbus Crew goalkeeper also knows exactly how many passes missed the mark on that brisk December day: one — just one.
The blemish, of course, came 27 seconds after kickoff. As Columbus knocked the ball around the back, Portland Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri rushed Clark, extended his right leg and sent the attempted pass careening into the Crew net.
"There is no real way to prepare for something like that, there is no real way to talk about it," Clark told Goal USA. "In that moment, you just have to shake it off and continue to focus on the task at hand. I wasn't going to commit a second mistake. I realized that the game was already in peril and my job now is to just do the best that I can.
"Goalkeeping is a very interesting position because you can't undo things, you can't go score goals — you kind of feel helpless in a way."
That sequence put Portland on its way to a 2-1 win and the club's first MLS Cup title. It also made for a cruelly ironic twist after Clark easily led all MLS goalkeepers in 2015 with 809 successful passes and 76 percent accuracy.
"Obviously Steve gets hundreds of balls, thousands of balls played to him during the course of the season," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said postgame. "He rarely makes a mistake like that."
Yet adversity is nothing new for Clark. The miscue was the latest bump on a path that took him from undrafted journeyman to MLS Goalkeeper of the Year finalist. Leaning on faith and family, Clark learned to navigate such hurdles.
He remembered how his father quit his job two decades ago to start his own business. "Even now," Clark said, "I see him fight for his business, and it's not different than what I'm doing."
As a single parent looking after three children, Clark's mother was "the sweetest lady in the world — but she also was just really gritty."
"Perseverance has been handed down from my family," Clark added. "My house is built on the rock of the Lord, and when you have something challenging, like the MLS Cup failure or early in my career when you get let go by teams, I had some extra strength in my faith. But on top of that, both my mother and father are people of great character. ... As a young man being shown character, not by words but by examples, it's much easier for me now to live that."
If Clark's parents seeded his tenacity, his post-college years nurtured the trait. After playing at Oakland University in Michigan from 2005 to 2008, Clark embarked on failed trials with Real Salt Lake and lower-tier clubs in Maryland and South Florida. He played for the fourth-tier Michigan Bucks until August 2009, when the Charleston Battery brought him in as a short-term backup making $30 a day.
Released by the third-division team at season's end, Clark began backpacking through Europe. Trials at Bradford City and Stabaek didn't work out before he finally got his break: a contract with Norwegian side Honefoss in January 2010.
But Clark faced a fresh challenge in his second season as Honefoss boss Leif Gunnar Smerud sat him down to emphasize distribution out of the back. A one-dimensional goalkeeper wasn't going to cut it.
For a nomad who spent so much time on his feet, Clark wasn't particularly fond of using them on the pitch. Unlike many goalkeepers, Clark never had much interest in the life of a field player. When his third-grade class played soccer at recess, he volunteered to face the unruly barrage of shots and never looked back. Playing roller hockey in his hometown of Mason, Michigan, Clark knew his place was between the posts.
"Our coaches basically came to me and said, 'We're going to build up more from the goalkeeper, so you have to get better or we're going to replace you,'" Clark recalled. "They didn't say that in so many words, but it basically was, 'You need to develop.' I wasn't always naturally doing that. I just had to drill over and over and make it a main focus of my daily life to try to get better with my feet."
Clark subsequently helped Honefoss earn promotion to the top flight. He then thrived in the Tippeligaen, earning Best XI honors from Norwegian broadcaster TV2 in 2012.
Although Clark didn't have plans to leave Europe, a call from Berhalter in the fall of 2013 quickly won him over. The incoming coach's commitment to building out of the back suited Clark's evolved playing style. The opportunity to play four hours from his hometown sweetened the deal.
Clark hasn't missed a minute of MLS action since arriving in Columbus, compiling a 29-21-18 record with 14 shutouts. In the locker room, the 29-year-old is well respected. Perhaps no player has forged a stronger bond with Crew supporters than Clark, who can regularly be seen guiding the Nordecke through postgame chants.
"Steve is a guy that we have 100 percent confidence he's going to come to play," Berhalter said. "He takes his job very seriously. He's very dedicated to his profession and we know he's going to compete. It's a good thing to have. He's a guy that every single day in training, every single game, he puts 100 percent effort into it. He's a great example to everyone."
As a 6-foot-1 Horizon League product, Clark was universally deemed too raw or too short to make the cut in American soccer. While the roots of his professional career were colored with uncertainty, he never considered another calling.
When it comes to setbacks, few in MLS roll with the punches quite like Clark.
"I think when you're called to mastery of a certain career, you have the deep self-belief to overcome your doubts," Clark said. "There's always doubts, there's always going to be thoughts of this and that. I just really believed deep down, as I believe today, that I'm not done developing. Back then, I knew that I just needed somebody to see what I saw in myself, and that happened.
"Not to be too mythical about it, but I just really felt that this is what I was supposed to be doing."