Rarely has Gregg Berhalter spoken these words:
"Brad’s going to play."
The Columbus Crew SC's head coach doesn’t often announce goalkeeper Brad Stuver as the starter because the man in front of him, Steve Clark, doesn’t often take a seat on the bench. Since arriving in Columbus three seasons ago, Clark has played 81 of 81 Major League Soccer matches.
"He’s played every minute since he’s been here, which is great for him," Stuver said of Crew SC’s No. 1 goalkeeper. "That’s credit to his ability to stay healthy, his work off the field, his work on the field to be one of the best goalkeepers in the league."
According to the stats, Stuver is yet to make his Black & Gold debut, but fans have gotten a glimpse of their club’s backup goalkeeper. Last year, Stuver started three matches — one friendly and two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup games — showing that he deserved to be the primary backup to Clark. Stuver also started this season's friendly against Tiburones Rojos Veracruz, recording a shutout.
With Crew SC set to begin Open Cup play in 2016 on Wednesday when the Tampa Bay Rowdies come to Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, it means another opportunity for Stuver to show what he can do in the net.
"It’s a way for the backup to get games," Stuver said of the U.S.’s longest running soccer tournament. "If you look at European teams when they play in F.A. Cup or Europa League, Champions League, mostly the backup goalkeeper gets some minutes in the early rounds, so I really look forward to these games to show what I’m capable of and just in case Steve does goes down, I can prove to the guys that I’m ready to step in whenever necessary."
While these games present a good opportunity for Stuver, it’s also another chance for Berhalter and his staff to see what they have behind Clark. Goalkeeper is the one position in soccer where you rarely see rotation as a team wants to keep its starter sharp and ready. Berhalter understands the difficulty this makes for the No. 2.
"It’s tough to say to a guy, ‘Prepare for the Open Cup’ once a year to a couple times a year, depending on how you do," Berhalter said. "But I hope that we set it up that Steve feels pressure; that he has to perform because there is pressure."
When not featuring in matches, keeping pressure on Clark is Stuver’s primary job. After a recent 4-3 victory over Real Salt Lake where Clark saved a first half penalty kick, the starting goalkeeper credited his backup for helping him prepare for what he would face.
"I was hearing both Pat [Onstad] and Brad’s words in my head before the penalty, because we had talked about them a lot," Clark said following the win. "I just went on instinct after that."
"I didn’t see that, but that’s awesome," Stuver said when told about Clark’s comments. "That’s definitely a positive thing coming from him. We bounce ideas off of each other. Before games, we talk about different players, what they’re capable of, different ways to combat what they’re going to do."
Along with the conversations with Clark, Stuver also pushes him in practice every day. Since he doesn't see much time on the game field, Stuver takes even more pride in his practices and literally keeps Clark on his toes.
"Brad will be ready," Clark said. "He trains well every day so we’ve been very sharp. It's been fun to be training as of late with two sharp goalkeepers because you leave the field with a good feeling. So Brad will be ready to rock and roll."
While Stuver admits that he's learned a lot in his time behind Clark, the ultimate goal is to get on the field. Right now, Clark has the starting spot locked up but it’s chances like Wednesday, and potentially future Open Cup matches this season, that Stuver looks forward to for the time being.
"Every player want to play. Every player wants to play consistent minutes," he said.
"Game minutes are definitely key. You don’t really get to full sharpness without playing week in and week out. But the coaching staff here does a great job of trying to replicate the matches as much as possible in training. So it’s just good to get out there and show them that their training is good enough to translate into the games."
With so few matches available to Stuver, he has to take advantage of the time he gets. So would he prefer to wow his coaches with save after save against the Rowdies or have an easier night where the players in front of him do most of the work?
"As long as we win and play well, I could care less."
Spoken like a starter.