The life of a backup goalkeeper is hard, especially on a team like Columbus Crew SC.
Steve Clark joined the Black & Gold before the 2014 season and played every minute of the last three seasons. That is until last week when reserve goalkeeper Brad Stuver earned his first Major League Soccer start.
“It was great. It’s been pretty much four years in the making,” the 25-year old said. “The first 10 minutes, the nerves definitely showed a little bit, definitely a little bit nervous.”
Stuver, a Cleveland native, played collegiately at Cleveland State for four years. He was drafted in the second round of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft by the Montreal Impact, but did not earn a contract and wound up in the MLS pool for emergency ‘keepers that year where he spent time with Crew SC.
The coaching staff liked what they saw enough to select Stuver in the waiver draft and his time with Columbus began.
Unfortunately for Stuver, Gregg Berhalter was named the club’s new head coach and brought in Clark from Norwegian side Hønefoss BK. Even more unfortunate for Stuver individually is Clark’s clean bill of health over these first three years with the team.
Consistently sitting on the bench and seeing only game action during occasional loan spells or friendly/U.S. Open Cup matches, what keeps Stuver motivated? I asked.
“It’s one of those things where I love playing soccer,” he responded. “I love being able to come out here every day. I’m very fortunate to do that. Steve’s been great for us; he’s been great for the club and he’s been helping the team, so I’ve just been waiting patiently.”
Goalkeepers are a different breed. Not only do they have to be willing to put their body on the line, diving to make saves and rushing out to slide an opponents’ feet, but their career trajectory is not the same as other soccer players. While a 25-year old field player with no game experience would raise some red flags, Stuver understood that the longevity of goalie careers means he’s actually right on track.
“If you look at (Steve’s) career, it’s not like he started out being the No. 1,” Stuver said. “He had to work his butt off to be where he is now. I’ve talked to some of the older ‘keepers throughout the league... Talking to Dan Kennedy, talking with Luis Robles, Bobby Shuttleworth, all these guys that really needed to bide their time and keep working hard and then when the opportunity came, they took it.”
Stuver’s opportunity finally came, but it wasn’t in an ideal scenario. Crew SC were eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs the previous Thursday and there was little to play for. But this is when a player like Stuver can shine.
But did he? It was a rough start for the debutant, conceding a penalty kick just five and a half minutes into the game at the New York Red Bulls.
“The ball was outside the box, I came for it,” he explained. “I could have either let (Michael Parkhurst) just pass it back to me or I could have cleared it upfield. But when it got stuck under my feet, I tried to take it back into the box and pick it up. It’s just one of those things where the decision making was a little too slow. Then the ball just kind of squirted around and when it got out, I saw (Harrison Afful) and Mike there but I wasn’t quite sure if they were going to make it or not so I tripped him up and took my chances with the penalty kick.”
While it’s not the start he would have liked, Stuver knew it was a big moment. “I look over at the bench and I see (goalkeeper coach Pat Onstad) standing there,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Man, do I really need to save this’ otherwise I’m going to be in big trouble.’”
Facing Sacha Klejestan, Stuver held his ground, waiting until nearly the last second to dive to his left and saved the shot.
While the Red Bulls won the match 3-2, it was apparent that Stuver became more comfortable as the game progressed. He credits his teammates for helping to clam him down and take the match in five minute segments.
With only one game remaining against New York City FC, Berhalter said Stuver will get the final start in goal. He is excited for another opportunity to showcase his ability, especially because they don’t come around all that often.
“I think getting that first one out of the way is always the hardest just because you don’t know what to expect,” Stuver said. “You go in there, you don’t know what your nerves are going to be like, you don’t how you’re going to respond to the fans, you don’t know what the conditions are going to be... Going into game two, I think it will be a little easier to get into the game from the start and then just keep my composure throughout the rest of the game.”
Although Gregg Berhalter likely would have given Brad Stuver the start against the Red Bulls in order to get him some MLS experience, his decision was made easier when Crew SC elected to shut Steve Clark down for knee surgery.
“It’s just maintenance,” Berhalter explained. “It’s nothing too serious, but it’s been bugging him and we took advantage of it now that we’re basically starting the offseason next week. So we’re going to get a jump on it with an early start.”
Berhalter said the issue is nothing serious and Clark is only to expected to miss about two weeks heading into the offseason.