MATHEW WAGNER - Friday, November 16, 2012
Though currently shrouded in a work permit controversy, Steve Clark has literally and figuratively stood on his head to become one of - if not the - highest rated goalkeeper in Norwegian soccer.
Following a stellar career at Oakland University in Michigan - where he led the team to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and won the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year Award in his senior season, Clark found himself out of the game.
It wasn't until August 2009 that Clark signed his first professional contract, inking a deal with Charleston Battery of the then-USL First Division.
"I didn't really make it after college so I was out of soccer for almost a year until I signed with Charleston late in August," Clark told YA from Norway. "I understand what it's like to lose soccer so I love it when I have it."
From that point, Clark has come a long way.
With one match remaining in the Eliteserien season, the former Golden Grizzly is about to help complete one of the most surprising storylines in Norway. Experts and fans expected Clark and Hønefoss, just promoted from the 1. Division, to be relegated after one season, but the team is a win away from securing a second year in the Norwegian top flight.
"Everything is set for success here," Clark said. "I can't say enough about the trainers here. We have a group of guys who believe in what they're doing on the field. I think this team is only going to go up."
For Hønefoss, success begins and ends with Clark's goalkeeping ability.
Despite averaging one goal per match, Hønefoss stayed relevant for much of the season and sat as high as fourth place on July 29th. Clark played a large role in the team's success, as the 26-year-old American recorded six shutouts in the team's first 10 matches. Overall, Clark has logged nine shutouts and led Hønefoss to the league's fifth best goals against record with 38.
"It feels good to be the goalkeeper I always thought I was," he said. "I'm playing at a higher level that I was even back in college as far as the level of competition. I'm playing good matches but I'm more excited about the way I'm playing and the level I'm bringing to the match."
His play has received notice not just from his teammates but from all over Norway, too.
The Norwegian media has followed Clark's play throughout the season, and the Michigander is thought to be a shoe-in for the both year-end Best XI and Goalkeeper of the Year awards.
Currently, the Norwegian media outlet Dagbladet ranks Clark as eighth-best player in the Eliteserien, and of those ahead of him, only four players have played in over 20 matches. Only one other player on the list, Molde's Vegard Forren, has played in every contest.
But the American feels that the best way to earn such accolades is to not worry about them.
"You can't want something so badly or else you'll end up fearing failure on game day," the 6'2" Clark waxed. "Of course I want to be recognized for my ability, but when I step on the field, it's out of my mind. I'm just focusing on what I can control."
Whether his performances for Hønefoss will lead to the ultimate goal - a United States call up - is yet to be decided.
Clark said it was flattering to even field questions about his chances about playing for his country, but he knows it will be a challenge to break into the team.
"It's what I train for every day," he said. "There's no guarantee for me even if I continue at this rate. There's a lot of good goalkeepers in the United States. I'm in a pool with a lot of really good guys. I look at it as a bonus. It's a motivation for me to keep pushing. I'm always pushing for it."
Before he can even think about the national team, Clark still has some work to do for his club team.
Despite the hot start, Hønefoss has cooled off, going winless in the team's last 12 matches. During that streak the team dropped from fourth to 12th place, sitting one point above the promotion playoff spot and two points above direct relegation.
The team should have 33 points instead of 32 points, but Clark played the first dozen matches without a proper work permit. The Norges Fotballforbund ruled last Friday to deduct one point from the organization, leaving direct relegation as a possibility.
Hønefoss has already lodged an appeal to the decision, but in the meantime, the club knows the only way to ensure another season in Norway's top tier is to beat Rosenborg on Sunday.
"We were as high as fourth, but we haven't won in a long time," the #26 shirt recalled. "So there's pressure building. When you have success, people want more success. We need to get some wins here. We're growing as a team and we're really working hard. Those wins haven't come."
No matter his team's final placement in the standings, Clark said he's grown a lot as a player over the year, but he still can improve more.
"I'm still learning to read the game," Clark concluded. "I'm certainly making a lot of saves for Honefoss, which is great, but there are ways which I can get better positionally."
"I have a lot more to go. I'm only in my second year starting as a professional. The more games and the more experience I gain, the better I'm going to get."