Steve Clark, Timbers vs. LA, 7.27.19

Major League Soccer's awards voters may not have taken notice, but the Portland Timbers certainly did. As did the player himself. When it came time to negotiate a new contract this offseason, neither Steve Clark nor his team had any doubts as to how important he was last year. By the numbers, the team's starting goalkeeper proved one of Portland's most valuable parts.

Undoubtedly, that is part of the reason why the veteran will return for a third season with Portland, but the line between his 2019 performance and his new contract wasn't necessarily a straight one. Over two months after last season ended, Clark's return has now been secured.

“Re-signing Steve was a priority for the club this offseason and we are thrilled to have him back after his tremendous 2019 season where he showcased his qualities,” the team’s president of soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, said via a club statement. “This new contract presents Steve with a well-deserved opportunity to continue to demonstrate his ability in MLS.”

With any contract in sports, there are broadly two clear, sometimes competing elements: what is the player’s current level, and what will his level be going forward. That dynamic was rampant in the subtext of the Diego Valeri negotiations, with club and player eventually agreeing on a multi-year deal to keep the Timbers icon in Portland. Likewise, when trying to assess another veteran’s future, a balance had to be struck on Clark.

On one side of those scales was the obvious: his 2019 level, a place where the numbers we trumpeted in the season’s last moments should be repeated. Thankfully, we’ve got this nice little table left over from his Supporters’ Player of the Year post:

Save percentage
Goals-against average
Saving catches/90
Keeper sweeps/90
Win percentage

Implied in today’s announcement is the Timbers’ acknowledgement of that. Clark may yet have to beat out a healthy Jeff Attinella in preseason camp – the Timbers are making it a tradition to have a goalkeeping battle going into every season – but Clark probably wouldn’t have it any other way. The same opportunity he was afforded in early 2019 to reclaim a team’s starting spot, he likely won’t begrudge Attinella or Aljaz Ivacic. It’s not that Clark was the best goalkeeper in MLS last year – let’s be clear on that. It’s that he deserved to at least be in the conversation. It’s reasonable to point to his 24 starts, note some of his peers logged more playing time, and consider that a demerit in his case. That’s fine. What isn’t reasonable is to forget about his place in the conversation, entirely.

He also has reason to like his odds of keeping his spot. While it’s fair to ask if, at 33 years old, Clark’s 24-game run truly represents a new level, it’s equally fair to note that his current play is a product of a concerted effort to evolve – an effort to embrace an evolution in goalkeeping that’s defined a more modern style. As much as any game from last season, Clark’s performance in a 2-1 victory at CenturyLink Field illustrated his change, one that’s allowed Portland to add new elements to its approach. Perhaps, even through that lens, Clark performed beyond what we should expect in 2020, but it last year’s performance was truly the result of evolution as much as opportunity, his 2019 surge may yet be the best measure of how Clark will perform going forward.

“When we brought in Steve last season, we had no doubt that he would be important for our team ...,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Saverese said in the club’s Friday statement. “We feel confident Steve’s experience and consistency will continue to be an asset for the team.”

That the team’s recommitted to Clark confirms that asset’s value, and Clark’s choice to return at least partially acknowledges the team’s value to him. Amid MLS’ rules regarding free agency, Clark had limited options, having fallen short on the playing time requirements to reach the open market. This new deal, however, hints both sides have recognized their middle ground.

As such, Clark won’t enter 2020 with as much to prove. Those who overlooked his 2019 performance last awards season may need to be convinced still, but with a new contract in a city he and his wife have enjoyed, Clark’s got his ultimate recognition. He’s been given a chance to defend his starting job in a place that he’s grown to love, in front of a fanbase that, in their Supporters’ Player of the Year honor, have shown they love him.

It may have taken longer than each side wanted to extend his stay, but Clark, with today’s new deal, has a chance to build on what’s he’s done in Portland. He has a chance to vault from a standout season to something that fosters legacy in his new home.