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D.C. United season review: Steve Clark

Is Clark the man to replace United’s best-ever goalkeeper?

The end of the transfer window saw D.C. United make a remarkable splash in the transfer market. The moves, all unveiled on August 10th, made clear sense. United needed midfield and attacking upgrades all season. A week later, though, they added one more new player to the list, and the addition of Steve Clark was a little more difficult to explain.

In the weeks that followed, though, United’s logic became clear. Bill Hamid was on the fence about signing a new contract with the Black-and-Red, and the team didn’t want to enter the offseason with one more position to worry about. Clark, a three-year starter with the Columbus Crew, would be a proven quantity if United had to enter 2018 with a new starter, and if not, they’d at least have a top tier back-up to cover for when Hamid was hurt or away on international duty.

We know now that Hamid is on his way to Danish side FC Midtjylland (oddly enough, Clark’s previous club is AC Horsens, another team from Denmark’s Superliga), which means that Clark starts the offseason as United’s new #1. Uncertainty about Hamid’s move, as well as a back injury suffered in training, saw Ben Olsen hand the 31 year old Michigan native starts in the final five matches of the season.

In his time with Columbus, Clark was extremely well-respected by everyone within the organization, with his leadership and mental strength frequently cited. Clark was also known to be brave even for the already extreme standards for goalkeepers, and capable of making some truly spectacular saves. He finished 3rd in 2014’s Goalkeeper of the Year voting.

However, Clark is most often remembered for a gaffe in the opening seconds of the 2015 MLS Cup, as Diego Valeri blocked his attempt to pass out of the back to score the fastest goal in the history of the league’s championship game. Clark’s willingness to play out of the back is a gift in terms of possession, but it does come with risks. He conceded a few soft goals based on less-than-ideal positioning, too, but generally he was regarded as belonging in the upper half of MLS starting GKs.

Clark’s time with United got off to a good start, as he posted a shutout in his first appearance (a 4-0 win over San Jose). However, from there United gave up two or more goals in each of their final four matches, raising suspicions in a fanbase used to having the gold standard of MLS ‘keepers.

Personally, I’m not big on pinning blowout losses on the goalkeeper unless the errors were obvious, major mistakes. There is a circumstantial link, certainly, but Clark was also trying to work within a fragile, defeated team that was coming to the end of a very disappointing season. That’s the kind of team that tends to lose frequently, and in retrospect playoff teams should be hanging a few goals on the second-worst team in the league.

Looking back over the goals Clark conceded, though, I think it’s fair to say the time he spent between the end of his contract with Horsens and his arrival in the District (two full months) caused some rust. At Red Bull Arena, Clark made a slight error on the first Tyler Adams goal, going low early when Adams was shooting high (though said shot was pretty impressive) and also couldn’t cut a cross out in the attack that ended with Adams getting a brace.

That game encapsulated the ups and downs with Clark, as it also saw him do this:

A lot of the goals Clark gave up were also just brilliant strikes. The first Adams goal mentioned above was a ferocious volley from an angle into the roof of the net. Justin Meram defied physics with this curler, which Crew announcer Neil Sika declared his best goal of the season. The Portland Timbers scored three outstanding goals after halftime, with Alvas Powell and Sebastian Blanco both finding the far corner from 20 yards with defenders possibly screening him. The third goal, which saw Blanco fake his way past a retreating defense after Steve Birnbaum had been knocked out cold in a collision, should never have counted, but still required a special level of skill.

It’s a very 2017 D.C. United thing to give up so many spectacular goals in such a short span. This team was obviously bad, but also ran into some poor luck, and Clark was unable to escape that side of things. However, he also made some big saves, and was repeatedly credited with helping boost the competitiveness in training. Clark’s confidence in himself and his demonstrative style (note his celebration of that save on Bradley Wright-Phillips in the above video) may also help rebuild United’s collective mentality, which surely needs substantial improvement.

United has strongly hinted at wanting to bring in another established goalkeeper to challenge Clark for the starting role, but that’s not what we’re here to settle. The question today is more straightforward:


Do you want Steve Clark back for the 2018 season?

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