How Steve Clark became a Portland Timbers hero for the right reasons

Steve Clark - Portland Timbers - Close up

PORTLAND, Ore. – Steve Clark will always have a place in the memories of Portland Timbers fans. But until a year or so ago, it was for all the wrong reasons, at least from his point of view.

Clark was in goal for Columbus Crew SC when they hosted the Timbers in the 2015 MLS Cup final, and infamously saw his pass out of the back blocked by Diego Valeri in the game’s first minute for the opening goal in what would turn out to be a 2-1 victory for Portland, the first and only championship in club history.

Today the tables are turned: Now Clark is backstopping the Timbers’ defense, producing a career year as a teammate and friend of Valeri as the two work to push the Timbers into the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“Yes, we have talked about that,” Valeri told earlier this month in regards to that moment in 2015. “I always say that even after the game that it was an accident on the game, but it told really well about him that they sustained that way of play all the time from the first game to the final, and then after that accident, he was the best player on the field.”

With last year’s starter Jeff Attinella sidelined by injury, Clark has had a tremendous season, compiling a save percentage of 78.5% and goals-against average of 0.95 – both tops among MLS starting ‘keepers – with only 20 goals allowed in 21 games, to build a solid case for Goalkeeper of the Year contention.

He’s also done it all with an endearingly quirky outlook on soccer and life.

“I definitely believe that he has been a great goalkeeper for us and very important, not only the way he plays with his feet, the way want in distribution, but also the save that he comes up with and the personality he has shown,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said about Clark.

Clark’s eccentric personality showed when he whipped out a Michael Myers mask after a dominant 4-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on June 22, proclaiming that Providence Park would be a “house of horrors” for visiting opponents.

“Unique,” said Savarese on how he would describe Clark. “I think he’s unique because he has a way of being. He’s a person that likes to communicate and say what he thinks.”

Noted Valeri: “It’s just before the game how he lifts up the guys, you know, screaming, yelling and lifting everybody. It makes me laugh but it’s really effective ... and obviously it’s the kind of guy that you always want to work with.”

But the well-traveled Clark, 33, is much more than someone who throws on a mask and yells a lot.

“I have an on-the-field persona that’s different than who I am off the field,” he said. “When I compete, you’re going to know you’re competing against me, first and foremost. I like to be a little bit brash on the field. But off the field I’m trying to be a good teammate, a good husband, a good man.”

Clark and his wife love going on hikes with their dog Ace, an 11-year-old Plott Hound mix they rescued in North Carolina. Ace’s left foot was paralyzed after he was hit by a car at 4 months old, and he’s had two ACL surgeries on his back leg, but that doesn’t stop him from exploring the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

“He’s an amazing companion,” Clark said. “He’s been my wife’s guardian angel and my wife and I are so close and such best friends that it’s like a trio with Ace, with all three of us.”

He admits that the rigors of the MLS season can limit his outdoor recreation time, and finds himself watching a lot more people hiking than doing hiking himself.

“I watch a lot of backpacking videos on YouTube, because we haven’t had much time off,” Clark said. “I’m vicariously living through people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.”

He’s also fueled by his faith. During times of struggle, his faith in God and belief in a higher purpose has kept him grounded, while also driving him to be a lifelong learner.

“My faith has been there any time of challenge in my career,” Clark said. “And that’s led to belief in myself and development, and I feel like I’ve gotten better as I’ve aged, which I’m very proud of and I think you see that fruit in my game.”

That, paired with a mutual fascination with tactics and soccer’s cerebral aspects, has helped forge a close friendship between Valeri and Clark, whose long-term goal is to move into coaching when his playing days are done.

“Steve is a great teammate, is always with good humor, always lifting up guys and being very positive,” Valeri said. “It’s been so easy, so fluid, because we have a lot of things in common ... It looks like he’s going to coach and he’s going to be an intense coach, an amazing coach, if he has the opportunity to do it,” Valeri said.

“I would tell you that he’s unique but at the same time, as they say, he’s a very common-sense guy,” he added. “He has a huge understanding of being normal ... that’s why he is what he is.”

Away from the pitch, Clark’s big dream – one that’s been 10 years in the making – is to buy a motorhome and travel across the country with no destination in mind. It’s something he’s talked about since the beginning of his playing days: Just him, his family, an RV and the open road.

After his wife told him to just do it, he finally gave in and bought that motorhome, and once the season ends, their journey will begin.

“I’ve been talking about this for like 10 years, man,” Clark said. “I’ve been talking about it forever. It’s just time to do it.”

But first, he’s got to help the Timbers complete their playoff push: After a three-game winless slump, the Rose City are perched just below the playoff line in the Western Conference standings, needing positive results in their final three games to ensure that they return to the postseason after last year’s run to the MLS Cup final.

If Portland are to mount another title run, they will need Clark at his distinctive best.