It only seems natural that Crew fans selected Mike Clark as one of the five finalists for the Crew’s 2014 Circle of Honor induction. After all, “#3 Mike Clark” was an automatic selection for Crew coaches from 1996-2003.
The rugged defender was a constant presence on those early Crew teams. Although his records for games and minutes have since been eclipsed by Chad Marshall over the course of 10 seasons, Clark’s eight-year run in the lineup was remarkable in percentage terms. In regular season play, he appeared in 221 of 234 possible games, good for 94.4 percent. He started 216 of those games, for 92.3 percent. When you figure that he started all 44 MLS Cup Playoff, Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and CONCACAF games played during his tenure, those percentages jump to 95.3 and 93.5 respectively. If the Crew played a competitive game in those years, only a suspension could keep Mike Clark from the starting XI photo.
To be in the lineup at that rate for that long is a remarkable thing. Talent certainly plays a huge role, as no challenger could dethrone him from his position. Toughness is another vital ingredient to such consistency. And, according to Clark, there is a prominent place at the table for good old-fashioned luck.
“I was very fortunate,” he said via telephone from Indianapolis. “I never had so much as a meniscus tear.”
Clark’s physical makeup was as sturdy as they come. Longtime Crew broadcaster Dwight Burgess instantly recalled Clark’s enormous calf muscles. Former Crew teammate Brian Dunseth nicknamed Clark “Thankles”—short for “thigh-ankles”—joking that Clark’s entire legs were of a preposterously uniform thickness.
It’s how Clark used that physical sturdiness, however, that kept him on the field, both in terms of health and production. From a young age, he had been told that the moment you let up on a tackle is when you’re going to get hurt – so he went into each challenge with everything he had.
“Hopefully that served me well over the years, since I wasn’t the one on the receiving end,” Clark said. “I joke with (Brian) McBride that he’s got more metal in his head than anybody, but that’s because he was always on the receiving end. I was always the guy dishing out the punishment, so I didn’t receive too many of the things that he got.”
For opposing attackers, Clark’s physical play could make for a long night. In addition to 40 yellow cards, Clark held the Crew record for red cards (four) until the mark was broken by fellow Indiana University pit bull Danny O’Rourke.
“[Clark] wasn’t tiny, so you might as well use that to your advantage,” said former teammate Dante Washington, who battled Clark while playing for Dallas in the 1990s. “You use what you’ve got. Clarkie and I used to go up against each other a lot. He would hit me, but I liked that.
“If you hit me, that means I can hit you, so I would try to dish it out too.”
“The memory I have of Mike Clark is he kicked me in the face,” recalled Alejandro Moreno, who was a second-year player for the LA Galaxy at the time of this particular Clark encounter in 2003. “I won the ball fair and square and the ball popped up into the air and he took me out with a boot to the face. Somehow he didn’t get a red card. That’s my memory of Mike Clark.”
Although not a malicious or dirty player, Clark readily concedes that being off by just a split second when making a play on the ball meant he could thump guys pretty hard. When you play a physical game, accidents will happen.
“I never ever went into a tackle thinking, ‘I’m going to hurt this guy,’” he said. “I felt horrible if I ever hurt somebody from a tackle.”
While opponents and teammates alike readily talk about the rough-and-tumble aspect of Clark’s game, to focus only on that aspect would do him a great disservice. The physicality was the manifestation of his desire to win. He wanted to win the ball. He wanted to win the game. He wanted to win… everything.
Fellow Circle of Honor finalist Brian Maisonneuve played with or against Clark since they were 12 years old, so he’s well versed in both sides of the Mike Clark experience. They played on opposing club and high school teams in Michigan, then became teammates at the club, college and professional levels.
“He’s a guy you loved to have on your team and a guy you absolutely hated to play against,” said Maisonneuve. “He competed in anything, whether it was every day on the soccer field or little games in the locker room. Even if it was who could flip their sock into the garbage can, Clarkie had to win. That obviously made him the player that he was. He never gave up and he competed. When he was hurt, he competed. When he was sick, he competed. He is one of the fiercest competitors I ever played with or against.”
That competitiveness led Washington to declare, “Clarkie was the biggest (crap)-talker on the team. I love that guy. He would (crap)-talk about anything.” (When told of Dante’s comment, Maisonneuve laughed and replied, “Competitor! I went with ‘competitor!”)
Clark did not disavow his knack for needling his teammates.
“Practice can be monotonous at times,” he said, “especially in a professional cycle since the season is so long. Practice was competitive because we’re all competitive. We wouldn’t be professional soccer players if we weren’t. If we were doing a shooting drill where they split us into forwards, midfielders, and defenders, I would talk a lot of crap. Obviously, you have to back it up. Duncan (Oughton) and I used to go back and forth, and I would say, ‘So far in practice this year, I have five goals and 25 assists.’ Like, I was keeping stats at practice. I was just winding people up.”
For all of Clark’s practice blather, he let his play speak for itself.
“One of the things I always prided myself on is if Fitzy (former Crew coach Tom Fitzgerald) or whoever said, for example, ‘I don’t want Ruiz to touch the ball,’ I felt like I could do it,” Clark said. “I could make sure he wasn’t going to have a good game and get his touches on the ball. I prided myself on that.”
It’s the type of subtle yet essential contribution that doesn’t generate headlines. Playing on teams loaded with goal scorers like McBride, Washington, Jeff Cunningham, Stern John, and Edson Buddle, “denial of touches” could never have the same pizzazz.
“Mike never let it bother him that he was almost overlooked on the team or that other guys got the press,” said Burgess. “The players knew who Mike was and what he was all about.”
The respect that his teammates had for him enabled Clark to assume a prominent leadership role on those Crew teams. As someone who gave maximum effort in every game and practice, and as someone who learned from the leadership styles of veterans like Thomas Dooley and other national team players like McBride and Brad Friedel, Clark emerged as a vital locker room presence.
“He was someone that we all listened to,” Washington said. “He’s a smart guy, so when he said something, it was usually spot on. It wasn’t going to be a bunch of bull.”
“He was a fantastic leader,” Maisonneuve agreed. “He said the right things, led by example and he was always the kind of guy that had your back. You knew it on the field, you knew it in the locker room, and you knew it when he spoke up, even if you were getting into it with him. You knew he was always there for you. He was a leader in both his words and his actions.”
He may have been a leader, but he was not a goal-scorer. Clark actually scored the game-winning goal at Giants Stadium that clinched the Crew’s 1997 playoff berth, but he said he still catches grief from his son about the golden chance he missed in the 2000 MLS All-Star Game at Crew Stadium, which was the first of Clark’s two All-Star appearances. The fact that his teenage son is too young to remember the play only adds to the razzing.
“He tells me, ‘I can’t believe you missed it.’ I’m like, ‘You didn’t even see it! You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ But he still brings it up. What happened was I put it wide. McBride put some heat on that ball and it kind of surprised me a little bit. But how many goals did Duncan score in his career? It’s not much different than me. [I advised that each scored three regular season goals.] There you go. Duncan the midfielder—three goals. That’s all I have to say. And I know I’ve got Danny O’Rourke beat.”
Clark set the bar much higher when it came to being an ambassador for the sport. Back then, players made loads of unpaid appearances in order to generate goodwill and exposure for the fledging club. Sometimes, it involved piling into a van and doing free soccer clinics all over the state. Clark recalls going to Chillicothe, where “the player-to-kid ratio was like 30-to-1.” And then there was Autograph Alley, which was mandatory for every player after every home game. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the exact same person I have signed an autograph for after every single game!’ But it was fun. You got to know some of the fans. I look back on it now and it was a neat time.”
Clark’s bond to the Crew and the community grew so tight that when the team re-made its defense with the acquisitions of Robin Fraser and Chad Marshall prior to the 2004 season, Clark opted to retire on his own terms rather than play for another team.
“Every now and then I think about that, and I’m still glad I didn’t do it,” he said. “It was perfect timing and I like the fact that I was with one team my whole career. In the long run, I’m glad it happened that way. I’m Columbus Crew through and through.”
Eight seasons. Two All-Star appearances. A preposterous percentage of starts. A leader on the field and in the locker room. An ambassador for the club and the sport. Columbus Crew through and through. Add it all up and one can see how the fans voted Clark as a Circle of Honor finalist.
Dwight Burgess has seen and covered more Crew soccer than anyone. When asked for his defining image of Mike Clark, Burgess went back to the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, when the Crew finally won its first trophy after all of those frustrating near-misses in the 1990s, defeating the LA Galaxy, 1-0.
“What I will always remember about Mike is the way he played the final minutes of the 2002 U.S. Open Cup championship game,” Burgess said. “With the Crew down a man and on the ropes, LA was throwing everything into the attack. Crew players were exhausted, but Mike stood tall and probably could have played another 30 minutes of overtime. If people want to know about Mike Clark, watch a replay of that match.”
Questions? Comments? Have your own personal favorite Clarkie memory? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk