Heading into the offseason, the Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper situation is murky.
When the club announced a raft of roster decisions last week, many players who did not have their contract options for 2017 picked up were expected.
But one of his decisions surprised many in Columbus, as head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter passed on the option of goalkeeper Steve Clark.
Despite playing every minute for 100 consecutive regular-season matches since his arrival in 2014, Clark is now out of contract. The 30-year-old ‘keeper was one of the first acquisitions Berhalter made when he took over in Columbus, and was a mainstay on two playoff teams before the team's disappointing 2016 season.
In a media call, however, Berhalter said that despite appearances, Clark may still find his way back to Crew SC.
“Steve’s option number was higher than we were comfortable with, so we simply declined the option,” Berhalter said. “It doesn’t mean the door is officially shut on him coming back to Columbus. That needs to be clear.”
Berhalter said he understood the risk of leaving Clark out-of-contract, but isn’t assuming he’ll be moving on just yet.
“There is a chance he’ll get taken in one of the expansion drafts,” Berhalter said. “But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be back.”
Without Clark on the roster, Columbus’s goalkeeping options are interesting but untested.
Brad Stuver, 25, has been the team’s backup for two years, and has grown to be a fan favorite largely for his likability off the field. He made two starts to end the season while Clark was injured, making eight saves but allowing seven goals.
Perhaps the most intriguing option is Zack Steffen, who Columbus acquired midseason.
The University of Maryland product represented the United States at U-18, U-20 and U-23 levels. He moved to German side SC Freiburg in 2014, where he fought his way from the reserve team to the senior team, serving as the third-string option before Columbus brought him back to the States in July.
The 21-year-old is still raw, but allowed just 12 goals in nine matches while on loan with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in USL this season. He has yet to make an appearance for Crew SC.
Berhalter declined to say whether next year’s starter is on the roster, but confirmed that the abilities of Stuver and Steffen influenced the Clark decision.
“In Brad Stuver and Zach Steffen, we feel like we have two good, young goalkeepers,” he said. “That’s why, when we were evaluating the value proposition of Steve Clark, we had to make the decision if it was prudent to take him back at that number, and we decided it isn’t.”
And whether Clark returns or is done in Columbus, Berhalter said the choice wasn’t a simple one.
“Steve has been a great part of everything we’ve done for the last three years,” he said. “These decisions are difficult.”