MATHEW WAGNER - Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Steve Clark didn't go to the Major League Soccer Combine after his senior season at Oakland University- he wasn't really on anybody's radar.
After some time in the Norwegian second division, Clark, along with his recently-promoted team Hønefoss, is making headlines and, perhaps, not flying under the radar any longer.
Hønefoss currently sits in sixth place in the Tippeligaen, the Norwegian top division, and he said that it caught the media and other teams in Norway off guard.
"Obviously, people outside of Hønefoss are quite surprised with how we've been doing," Clark said. "I think that we have a good coaching staff and a team that believes in each other. For us it's no surprise, but for the league and the press around here are quite surprised."
Clark and the Hønefoss defense have been a major factor to the team's early success.
The team has allowed only nine goals through 12 games, with Clark recording six shutouts. One team managed to put more than one goal past Clark- Odd Grenland in a 4-1 loss May 13th.
Those nine allowed goals are the fewest in the Tippeligaen.
Clark credited the defensive structure of the team as the reason for having Norway's toughest defense.
"It starts with the strikers and it just trickles down," he said. "We all work hard behind the ball. If you watch our games, we have really good structure. We're hardly ever out of balance."
He also attributed the strong defensive performance to the relationship he has with his backline. Including friendlies and cup matches, Clark and the same backline have played 55 matches together.
Because of the level of comfort with each other, Clark and the defenders put their egos aside when watching film and pointing out mistakes that each player made.
"There's no finger-pointing," Clark said. "We're in this together. A lot of times, you'll get goalkeepers and defenders- they'll start finger pointing, and you lose trust.
"We just trust each other. There's never been a moment where I made a mistake and people are yelling at me because we know we're in it together and people make mistakes."
Clark also looked at his own improvement over the years as a reason that he has come out of nowhere.
The former Golden Grizzly didn't come out of college with the fanfare that others did. He went to USL-1 team Charleston Battery but did not make an appearance before creating the opportunity to trial at Bradford City in England.
Because he was unable to obtain a work permit, Clark left England and trialed at Stabæk. Stabæk was going to send one of its goalkeepers to Hønefoss on loan, but when that deal fell through, Clark set up a trial with Hønefoss and earned a roster spot.
In 2010, Hønefoss dropped back down to the Adeccoligaen, the Norwegian second division, and Clark went further into the unknown.
Although this has been a reason that he has been unknown, Clark said that he has improved drastically from when he left college in 2009.
He said that because he's living and playing abroad, most of his time is spent focusing his own play. He doesn't spend much of his time on other distractions, and it has shown on the field.
"I don't go to training thinking, ‘Ok, well, it's just a two-hour training session. Then I'm going to plan my day,'" Clark said. "My day is planned around my training. I really do a lot of time thinking about my game, improving. I thinking, hopefully, in six months' times, if you saw me play, you wouldn't even recognize me as the goalkeeper I was now."
Clark hopes that his record in Norway may lead to a national team call up.
He said that he knows he's not a complete product, but he does have ambitions like other Americans to make the national team.
And with things dicey behind Tim Howard at goalkeeper at the moment, he could have an opportunity to get called up at some point.
"I'm sure that they're aware that I'm playing over here, and like I said, I just try to control what I can control," he said. "If someday they give me the call, then that's fantastic.
"I'm pushing to get as good as I possibly can. Hopefully, I can get my play to a level where they can't ignore me."
For now, Clark is turning his attention back to his club season, but that almost ended before it really started.
It turned out that the goalkeeper didn't have a work permit in Norway because his club did not apply for it and could have been deported had he not left. He missed a week and a Norwegian Cup match before the situation worked itself out.
The team will face some sort of fine from the Norwegian soccer association, which should be the only sanction the team faces, Clark said.
Now that the paperwork situation has been fixed, Clark can get back to the game.
Despite sitting in sixth place, the expectation around the league is that the team will drop anyway.
"You know how it goes- there's 18 games left," Clark said. "I think everybody's still expecting us to drop. The common thing now is, ‘They had a good start, but other teams have had good starts too.'"
In order to keep from a collapse, though, the team will be looking for more offense.
Hønefoss has one of the worst offenses in league, having scored only 11 goals so far. Clark said that there is talent up top, but the team has not found the right combination to score more goals.
Still, if the defense plays as well as it has all year, the team will be competitive.
"I think that the whole year, our goal has been to win the next game, and we've proven that we can be in every game. I wouldn't want to put a guesstimate on where we'll end up, but I can tell you that we're going to be in every single game."
With 18 months on his contract, Clark also has to look for his next step- be it staying at Hønefoss, in Norway or even somewhere else in Europe.
Clark said that his first option is stay in Europe and not come back to the United States, saying that he is content with his life in Norway.
"I'm not saying that I wouldn't go back to the MLS, but I think that for the near future, I like my life here in Europe. I miss home, but at the same time, I like the excitement of being over here. I like the opportunity of Europe."