“The rug got pulled out from under me.” That’s how Clark describes his unceremonious exit from Stabaek. “That was the toughest part of the whole adventure.”
At the last moment, with the contract ready to be inked, the club opted to sign another goalkeeper. Even for someone as seemingly single-minded and determined as Clark, questions must surely have surfaced?
“I remember going back to my hotel which they were paying for and having to check out,” Clark explains. “It was a really tough moment. I remember just staring at the wall and thinking what the [expletive] do I do now?”
Clark decided to see out his time in Norway. What was planned as his final evening saw him spend it with friends. As the blistering cold enveloped the outside of their house, inside, a wood-burning stove kept a group clad in long johns warm as they sipped on some whiskey.
The mood was jovial and in a last roll of the dice, they called one more club, placed in the first division - Hønefoss Ballklubb.
Much to their surprise the goalkeeping coach answered and a conversation in Norwegian ensued between the coach and Clark’s friend.
“I had no idea what was being said,” Clark explains. “He put the phone down and he told me I had a trial the next day.”
The room erupted in celebration as the festivities continued long into the night, one final door of opportunity had creaked open for the Michigan native to try and slide through. Taking the bus to the training complex the next day, he was acutely aware of the standard he was playing at.
After a standard training session, he was handed a practice match to display his talents. Impressing the coaching staff, he was handed a contract and so began his real European adventure, in Norwegian football.
In just his fourth game in a Hønefoss shirt, he came up against Stabaek. Here was an early chance at retribution.
“Whenever a team would cut me, I’d always give back the training kit and make sure that I proved to them they made a mistake.”
Doing just that, he helped his side earn a narrow 1-0 win, silencing the home crowd that could very easily have been chanting his name had things gone differently.
“I was almost like the new kid in school [at Hønefoss],” Clark explains. “I had more and more game and had two fantastic trainers and they really helped me develop, and they believed in how good I could be and they were relentless in believing how good I could be. We were just a small club and I was able to go there and they didn't know who I was.”
For those who followed Norwegian football, Clark’s development was evident and matched by that of the club’s. Hønefoss earned promotion to the top flight and during the 2012 season in the Tippaligen - Norway’s top division - he was named in the team of the year.
With the quality European Soccer also came the constant threat of relegation, something he now believes aided his development.
“When you play with promotion/relegation every year like I did, it wasn't like I had this opportunity to develop, it was either develop or don’t,” he explains.
Asked how he feels he has developed, one skill in particular stands out: “The way I play with my feet now, is one of the reasons I think Gregg brought me here,” Clark explains.
He reveals it was one of the few things Columbus Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter discussed with him when they first spoke. With the coach outlining his requirements for a goalkeeper, Clark felt he fit the bill, largely thanks to his time in Norway.
“I was never really a great goalkeeper with my feet but I essentially attacked it like I did with winning a contract. Coming in after training, hitting balls, watching games, reading the striker’s body language.”
That fierce determination has been backed-up by both Eric Gehrig and former Michigan Bucks teammate and Columbus defender Eric Brunner. However even Gehrig reluctantly admits that sometimes that desire to evolve sometimes casts Clark as his harshest critic.
“I think it was the LA Galaxy game this season, where we’re all in the locker room celebrating,” Gehrig recalls, “Steve’s there looking at the goals, seeing how he could have stopped them, how he can be better for next time.”
Within thirty seconds of meeting Clark, he’s already playing down all the nice things that I’ve been told about him. He's humility personified and has his own theories on why he’s that way: “Goalkeeping is such a humbling position. Anytime you step out of that [position] you end up a schalacking.” he explains.
However it’s in discussing that fierce intensity we stumble across the one regret from his time in Europe. It’s the summer after his first season. Things have gone well and he’s about to take on the top league in Norway, but he’s still working, more specifically two-a-days back home in Michigan.
“I kind of wish I’d just taken a step back and took a breath in instead of that.” Clark explains. Pushing himself using the pressure of the situation, it mutated into a problem for the goalkeeper: “It [the game] used to dominate my life. Starting with Friday and you’re looking at the game. I would just shut myself in kind of,” he tells me.
He now meditates. He touches on his strong relationship with God throughout our conversation and admits he received a moment of clarity midway through his time at Hønefoss.
“There came a point last year where I came off a really big year in 2012 and there was a lot of teams looking at me and I was pushing too hard in certain places,” Clark said. “I kind of came to the revelation to let go more,”
It’s a message he’s eager to spread to his teammates: “I say to Will Trapp, play the ball quickly, but play it with peace,” he tells me. “We play a possession-based system and you can’t be worried about a mistake. You have to play free.”
That relaxed nature is also why Clark feels he’s thrived at the club. Probing his relationship with Berhalter further, he tells me. “As a [head] coach I feel like there's always a point where you push for results, but you let them be free to play and he [Berhalter] has a very good mix of that.”
His attitude many feel is his one of his biggest assets, and one of the reasons that lead him to winning the Kirk Urso Heart Award.
Not only humbled by the accolade, Clark admits it also represents a milestone for his own journey: “In the past I would never have been voted for that award because my temper would spill out. You don’t see it [my temper] so much anymore and that's really gratifying to be a really good teammate as I think thats going to go further than soccer success.”
Still just 28 years old, Clark is relatively young for a goalkeeper, especially when you consider Brad Friedel is still playing well into his 40s.
Speaking enthusiastically about his future, Clark feels he has another level to reach, and seems eager to do it wearing the Black & Gold of Columbus Crew SC, meaning the club will head into 2015 with not just a safe pair of hands, but also calm ones too.