MLS Combine Diary: Don't Stop the Party

On Thursday evening, the night before the start of the 2013 MLS Combine, pretty much every participant was relaxing in their room after a day of travel and an evening of physicals and paperwork

That is, everyone but Ryan Clark. You could have looked high and low for the Monmouth University graduate, but you wouldn't have found him. 

Turns out, Clark wasn't even at the hotel at all. He was out running. Where to? Not even he knew. The kid just runs. 

"I just left the hotel, turned right and ran straight," Clark told us on Saturday, carrying a gallon of water around the hotel and fitted out in tights to help the recovery process from a tough first match in Fort Lauderdale.

You see, Clark is somewhat of an anomaly down here. Usually the college kids need to be taught about the importance of fitness, while Clark has already earned the "young professional" moniker from those who have had the chance to work with him. No detail is too small. 

"After the game yesterday I had a recovery shake and everyone was asking me where I got it," Clark said on Saturday. "I was like 'I brought it.' That's just who I am."

There's little doubting Clark's off-field habits helped to get him here, but the interesting thing about his case as a potential draftee in Ft. Lauderdale, is that he shouldn't even be here at all. 

On merit, you would expect that a player with Clark's resume would stand a decent shot at an invite to come mix it up with some of the nation's top players. The kid was a freshman All-American before suffering a self-diagnosed double sports hernia at the end of his first term at Monmouth. By the time he'd recovered completely, he was back to his best, dishing out six assists while playing all over the field in his senior year. 

So when the college season ended and it become time to take the next step, Clark was hopeful that a Combine invite was on the way.

It didn't come. 

"I was very upset when I found out, because I felt like I deserved to be here." Clark said, remembering the call he got from his coach Rob McCourt informing him that he was named as an alternate, just barely missing out on the original list of 54. 

Still set on seeking out playing opportunities, Clark took to Seattle to participate in a Sounders FC group tryout before returning to home to New Jersey. 

Then one day, just before Christmas, Clark's cell phone lit up. 

"There was no one home, and the call was from some random number. I had no clue who it was."

Still, he answered.

"Ryan? This is Jan Osborne from MLS."

Clark didn't need to hear anymore. Through some kind of circumstance, whatever it was, he was in. Alternate no more. 

"I hung up the phone and just started sprinting around the house." said Clark, beginning to crack a smile. "I was home alone, I wanted to tell someone but I couldn't so I just...ran around. I actually put on that Pitbull song Don't Stop the Party, I put that on, blasted it. I was pumped."

Fast forward a few weeks, and Clark found himself on Prime, led by Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley and some of the draft's top prospects. Trying to fit in (and hopefully shine) on a team with the likes of Eriq Zavaleta, Carlos Alvarez, Blake Smith and Kekuta Manneh can be a daunting task for many less-heralded talents, but Clark took it all in stride.

"I knew a lot of the names, I love playing with good players, I thought we were stacked."

Still, despite the firepower, Prime found themselves trailing adiPower 1-0 at halftime on Friday. Needing some more energy to help gain control of the match, Clark was asked to come on and help put the clamps on an adiPower all-everything midfield combo of John Stertzer and Mikey Lopez. Sure, why not? 

"They were having their way with us," Clark recalled. "They told me just to press out, get in their face and run as much as possible to help free up [Alvarez]." 

Clark did a little more than that. Midway through the half, the Freehold, N.J. native found himself on the ball and in space on the right. Perfect. Clark curled a left-footed shot toward the backpost that for a moment looked goal-bound before crashing off the bar and over the target (Watch it here). Still, if the goal was to put his mark on the game, that effort certainly got everyone's attention. 

It remains to be seen how Clark will fare over the next two matches, and ultimately whether or not he's selected next Thursday. Still, his Friday performance prompted Real Salt Lake to schedule an interview, with more clubs perhaps set to follow in the coming days. 

As for what he's expecting from here on out? More of the same, which should be good enough. 

"I know I'm not high on everyone's draft board because a lot of these teams dont really know me as well," Clark said. "I'm not on Fox Soccer Channel, I don't play in all these big games, but I know I have as much talent as anyone here."

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