COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Steve Clark is usually one of the surest goalkeepers in MLS when the ball is at his feet.
But with MLS Cup on the line on Sunday night at MAPFRE Stadium, all it took was on long touch, one lapse in concentration for that to become moot.
Just 27 seconds into the match, Columbus Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp played the ball back to Clark, like he’s done hundreds of times before. Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri put Clark under pressure as the goalkeeper tried to turn and pass the ball out to central defender Gaston Sauro. Only it never got there.
Valeri slid in to block the pass and the ball redirected into the back of the net to give the Timbers a one-goal advantage with what was the fastest goal in MLS Cup history. Portland added a second six minutes later and went on to win, 2-1.
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Clark held himself accountable for the goal after the match: “This is completely on me,” he told reporters.
Since taking the Columbus job prior to the 2014 season, Gregg Berhalter has instituted a system that calls for confident play out of the back and possession-oriented soccer.
In 2015, Columbus had the second highest possession percentage of any team at 53.84 percent. Only the New York Red Bulls controlled possession at a higher rate during the regular season (55.15 percent)
“It’s been two years since we started playing this system out of the back, and I think that is the first time we’ve directly lost a ball and been scored on there,” said midfielder Ethan Finlay.
Though Clark was quick to blame himself for the goal, his teammates, including Finlay, were quick to defend the second-year MLS player.
“We put so much pressure on that guy playing out of the back, and it happens one time,” said Finlay. "You don’t see all the balls I lose and it doesn’t end up costing us a goal. That play’s not on Steve, by any means.”
“Steve gets thousands of balls played to him over the course of the season and he rarely makes a mistake like that,” Berhalter added.
Justin Meram, who scored the fastest goal in MLS Cup Playoff history in Leg 1 of the Conference Championship against the Red Bulls, also stood behind his ‘keeper.
“This isn’t on Steve, it’s on all of us," Meram said. "He’s a leader and it’s almost the way we play puts him in that position. We love him to death. You saw some of the plays he made today. So you’ve got to tip your hat to him; he had a hell of a year.”
“We got punched in the face like we’ve punched a couple teams in the face early,” Wil Trapp said. “It sucks to be on the other side of it. Giving away two goals early, you’re always going to be fighting back.”
Club captain Michael Parkhurst, who has now lost MLS Cup on four occasions, summed up the rough start simply.
“It’s a dreadful start for us," he said. "None of us envisioned starting the game like that.”