On Wednesday, Columbus Crew SC announced the club had picked up the options on several key players, but one of the names noticeably not on that list was goalkeeper Steve Clark.
The Black & Gold’s netminder was acquired by sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter when he first took over the team before the 2014 season. Since that point, Clark made 100 consecutive appearances for Crew SC, a streak that only ended because the club was out of the MLS Cup Playoff race at the end of 2016 and the goalkeeper needed minor knee surgery.
While the option was not picked up, Berhalter wanted to clarify that Clark’s tenure with Columbus is not necessarily over.
“We should clear the details of this before we proceed,” he said. “Steve’s option number was higher than we were comfortable with so we simply declined the option. It doesn’t mean the door is completely shut on him returning to Columbus. So that needs to be cleared. There is a chance obviously that he’ll get taken in one of the drafts, expansion drafts, but it’s not out of realm of possibility that he could be back.”
Clark, though, was not so confident he would return to the Black & Gold. According to Kellen Becoats of the Columbus Dispatch.
“I would say that I’m definitely happy with my three years in Columbus,” Clark told The Dispatch. “There was a lot of success, some ups, some downs. But in the end, Gregg and I sat down and for the betterment, I feel, of myself, it was time for me to make the change. We’ve made such a great home there. But this is a business and for me, and also I think the Crew, too, it’s a good time and a good year to separate.”
Just got off the phone w/ Steve Clark &, while he didn't rule out a return to Columbus, he said he is strongly considering options elsewhere— Kellen Becoats (@KellenBecoats) November 23, 2016
Despite making the postseason in two of Clark’s three seasons with the club — so far, Crew SC were not successful defensively. The Black & Gold conceded an average of 51 goals per year and that number increased each season.
Not all of that was Clark’s fault though. Berhalter’s system is based on an attacking, possession style, that encourages both fullbacks to get forward and leaves the defensive line exposed at times.
Clark finished in the top four of Major League Soccer in saves in each of his three seasons and was one of the better possession keepers in the league.
If the 30 year old does not return in 2017, Crew SC have four-year pro Brad Stuver and 21 year old U.S. youth international Zack Steffen remaining on the roster. Between the backup goalkeepers, they have two MLS games played (both by Stuver to end last season).
While neither player has much professional playing experience — Steffen played 14 times for German side Freiburg’s second team — Berhalter likes what he has in the two.
“In Brad Stuver and Zack Steffen, we feel like we have two good, young goalkeepers and that’s why when we’re evaluating the value proposition of Steve Clark,” he said. “We have to make a decision if it’s prudent to take him back at that number and we decided it isn’t. Steve has been a great part of everything we’ve done for the last three years and these decisions are difficult.”
Fans should expect Crew SC to add another goalkeeper, as Berhalter likes to have three shot-stoppers on his roster. There is the likely possibility that he adds a more veteran presence, potentially a new starter.
If they do go outside the current roster, expect the Black & Gold to look for someone who is good with his feet and can play a part in the possession game. That is an essential part of any Columbus goalkeeper.
While many fans were not happy with Clark, especially towards the end, he was a vital part of a team that reached the playoffs for the first time in two years and helped the team reach the MLS Cup Final in 2015.
If Clark doesn’t return, this will be another step in Berhalter’s plan to reshape the team to get back to the competitive level of his first two years in charge.