Postcard from Europe: US goalkeeper of the future?
AMSTERDAM — Most stateside fans probably aren't familiar with the peculiarly impressive story of Hønefoss BK netminder Steve Clark. That may change before long, because it's a good one and it's still unfolding.
After a short 2009 stint with the Charleston Battery, the Michigan native headed overseas to trial with League Two's Bradford City. The English side was never going to be able to get Clark a UK work permit, but he was able to spend nearly a month under the tutelage of former England goalkeeper Nigel Martyn.
"He's a legend," the 25-year-old told MLSsoccer.com by phone from Norway. "He basically gave me a lot of confidence and said, 'Keep going, I believe in your training habits and instinct and ability.' When he says something, you listen."
Armed with a recommendation letter from Martyn, Clark then came close to joining Norwegian top-flight side Stabæk. One incredible plot twist later, he was a member of their Tippeligaen rivals Hønefoss.
"Stabæk wanted to sign me, but couldn't when their goalkeeper turned down a loan deal to Hønefoss," he explained. "The contract fell through, but I just picked myself up. I thought, if they wanted Stabæk's keeper, then they should want me."
Clark called up the club, who invited him for a trial, and he signed two days later. He only had a handful of games as Hønefoss dropped out of the top flight in 2010, but was named the starter prior to the following campaign.
Hønefoss won the second-division title last year, with Clark posting 13 shutouts in 30 games. Both he and the team have continued this stingy manner upon returning to the honor division, conceding just once while staying unbeaten through the first three games of 2012.
"Our structure is good," said Clark. "We get in there, go after teams and have a lot of confidence in how we defend. The guys in front of me are so good, they make it a lot easier for me."
As it so happens, he returns the favor. Blessed with unusual athletic abilities for a goalkeeper, Clark is one of those rare netminders that is a factor in how his club prepares tactically.
"Sadly, it's not necessarily that the fastest keeper is the best keeper," laughed Clark. "But I do have a few interesting skills. I'm not the biggest guy, but I like to play aggressive. Me having speed allows the backline to play higher. I use that get into a better place to save the shot or close down or get to a through ball first."
Clark is currently on a 16-game unbeaten run dating back to last season. Though not really one to plot far ahead, he holds hopes of parlaying wins at Hønefoss into bigger scenes one day.
"I've always dreamed of playing in the Bundesliga," he stated. "I'll be the first one to tell you, I'm not at that level yet, but maybe in a couple years. Maybe not, but I'm certainly going to shoot for it."
As for playing at home or for the Red, White and Blue, those things are both on his to-do list, if in separate categories.
"I'd love to come home and play in MLS," said Clark. "Whether that's in two years or six years, I don't know.
"With the national team, the first question is: do they need you? Right now, the answer to that is unequivocally no. Someday, maybe. Of course, everybody wants to play for their national team, but it's not something I focus on. If you do your job over years, then maybe you can get there."
At the moment, that job entails keeping Hønefoss in the Tippeligaen and he likes their chances.
"Staying up is the No. 1 goal," asserted Clark. "One of the strengths as a team, and certainly my strength, is just focusing on the next game at hand."
That next game for Hønefoss is a short trip to face nearby rivals Stabæk, giving him a chance for some American conversation with the opposition. While Sean Cunningham also hails from Michigan, Clark is particularly amped to square off against a certain namesake midfielder.
"It'll be exciting to play against Ricardo Clark on Monday," he stated. "I've always been a fan of his with the national team. I don't know those guys well, but I always say hi. There's always a kinship with Americans playing abroad, because you all go through similar stuff."
Along the road from Michigan to AKA Arena, Clark has managed to find his game by battling. That attitude comes across in his play and remains the key plot device in this story.
"I have to credit my coaches for challenging me," he said. "I have never been like "the chosen" goalkeeper anywhere. It was basically sink or swim.
"The coaches came to me and said we need you to play high, be a sweeper-keeper and dominate in the box, and if you don't the next guy will. In those kind of situations, you either do or you don't. Thankfully, I did. And I will continue to."