Heading into the 2014 season, the goalkeeping position was a bit of a question mark for the Columbus Crew. Andy Gruenebaum, who made 21 starts the previous year, was traded to Sporting Kansas City and Matt Lampson was the only keeper on the roster with MLS experience, 16 games in two years.
New Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter brought Michigan native Steve Clark back to the United States from Norway, but not much was known of Clark when he first arrived in town. It was not clear who would be the starter between Clark and Lampson in the preseason.
Once Clark won the job, it was all she wrote. Clark started all 34 games for the Black and Gold and even handled the Open Cup games as Lampson missed time with an injury. Because of this, this grade goes only to Clark as he was the only netminder used by Columbus this season.
It was apparent rather quickly what Berhalter saw in Clark. With the open, attacking style the Crew play, the team left itself open to attacks the other way at points throughout the year. This forced 27-year old to bail his team out on several occasions.
Even during the rough summer months where the Black and Gold struggled to get wins, Clark continued to play well and helped the team earn ties that were important towards the end of the year. He finished with 111 saves and eight shutouts for the season and a goals against average of 1.24 - all top 10 in the league.
Not only was Clark important for his ability to keep the opponent from scoring, but he also was a major part of the team's system. Under Berhalter, the Crew focused on keeping possession and making teams work to get the ball back, which included the goalkeeper position. Throughout the season, Clark demonstrated his ability to play with his feet being available to his back line and helping to build the attack out of the back.
His distribution with the ball in his hands was also important. Many goalkeepers love to punt the ball to the strikers quickly after picking it up, but this would have only hurt the Crew attack. Clark was able to make smart decisions and only sent the ball long when necessary, usually finding his defenders with room to take the ball forward.
The major downside of the position came in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Although the Black and Gold ran into a buzz saw in the New England Revolution, Clark did not live up to the level of play throughout he demonstrated during the season, conceding seven goals over the course of two games, more than any other two-game stretch during the regular season.
Although Clark is not all to blame for the poor performance in the playoffs, he would be the first to tell you he could have done more to help his team. A good season for the Columbus goalkeeper ended on a sour note and he has already discussed his excitement to make things right next year.
Final Grade: A-
Clark's playoff performance only counts against him so much. For the majority of his first season in MLS, the goalkeeper was a wall and worked his way into U.S. National Team consideration with his performances. He is another good signing by Berhalter and should be rock at the back for the Crew in the future.