PORTLAND, Ore. — By the time the Portland Timbers made this year’s MLS Cup final, their defense had figured their problems out.

Maligned in the middle of the 2021 season — and with a goals-allowed rate that at one time put Portland near the bottom of the league — the Timbers’ defense was a weakness entering the season’s final months. When the final whistle blew on the league’s Dec. 11 championship game, though, Portland had allowed only three goals over the team’s last 650 minutes played, a rate 70 percent better than league average. The Timbers only gave up one goal to New York City FC over 120 minutes in the final.

Steve Clark was a huge reason Portland was able to recover. As the Timbers’ defense struggled, the goalkeeper’s shot-stopping was unfettered. He was the strongest part of the team’s defense. Portland had seen other `keepers fill in throughout the spring and summer — all of Jeff Attinella, Hunter Sulte, Logan Ketterer and then Aljaz Ivacic got playing time — but Clark’s strengths became a safety net for a backline that needed work. He bought the Timbers time to figure things out.

Clark established himself as the Timbers’ starting goalkeeper in early 2019, enjoying a stellar season in what amounted to a revenge tour. He’d been released by DC United roughly a year before. By the end of his first full year in Portland, his performances were comparable to the best goalkeepers in MLS, and he was recognized for it. He received a new, upgraded contract that offseason.

That deal expired at the end of the 2021 campaign, making Clark a free agent. With that agency, Clark is off to Houston, signing a contract with Dynamo FC that brings his three-and-a-half-year tenure in Portland to a close.

“Thank you to the Portland Timbers for the last 3.5 seasons,” Clark said while announcing his departure on Instagram. “It’s been an incredible ride. The decision to leave isn’t one I took lightly.

“To the fans, your passion reignited my own. I’ll never forget the sound of providence park chanting my name.

“To my teammates, what we all experienced together will never be forgotten …”

The greatest testament to Clark’s time in Portland is the context he established for himself. He’s now part of the discussion of the best Timbers `keepers of the MLS era. It’s a short era — only 11 seasons, at this point — but there’s significant competition. Donovan Ricketts was the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year in 2013. Adam Kwarasey remains a fan favorite for his heroics during the 2015 Cup run. Jeff Attinella was a major contributor to teams that finished top of the West in one regular season (2017), won the conference outright the next (2018). These aren’t exactly Nick Rimando resumes, but for a team with an 11-year MLS history, the achievements are still notable.

“We are extremely grateful for Steve’s immense contributions to the club’s success over the past three-plus seasons and wish him and his wife Carella all the best,” Gavin Wilkinson, Timbers general manager and president of soccer, said in response to Clark's departure. “We entered negotiations this off-season knowing it would be an uphill battle to make the numbers work with Steve as a free agent and are appreciative of his professionalism throughout the process.”

Clark’s resume makes for a compelling comparison. Because he didn’t begin 2019 as Portland’s starter, Clark was never in a position to match Ricketts’ Goalkeeper of the Year honor, but once he entered the Timbers’ starting lineup that season, his performances were on par with the best goalkeepers in the league. He may not have been in goal for a league title like Kwarasey, but he was in goal for last year’s MLS Is Back title, as well as this year’s MLS Cup. And whereas Attinella may have had a longer spell of relevance for Portland than Ricketts or Kwarasey, Clark’s nearly three-year run as the Timbers’ starter is slightly longer.

To the extent there’s a debate about Ricketts, Kwarsey, Attinella, and Clark, we can settle each on our own terms. That Clark is even in that conversation speaks to how valuable he was to Portland. All four players were on teams either made MLS Cups or led their conferences during the regular season. All are players who either won major awards, created legendary moments, or had a major impact in the community and locker room. They’re company any Timber should be proud to be a part, and during his time in the Rose City, Clark became one of them. He’s part of the standard the next Portland starter will have to live up to.

“I am thankful for Steve’s time in Portland and everything he gave us,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “He was an important part of our team and I wish him all the best in his new venture.”

To that end, Clark isn’t done. Part of why he’s leaving is that he was sought after. Other teams acknowledged his value, and the Timbers had to make a tough decision. If feels like we say this each offseason, but in a salary-cap league, those decisions are a constant. Clark had maintained a high enough level that the Timbers’ hand was forced. That they chose another option says more for the league’s constraints than Clark’s value.

Getting the same value is 2022 no guarantee, something that also speaks to Clark’s contributions. Ivacic will get a chance to show he’s an MLS No. 1, and in time, Sulte might ascend to that level. But for now, the Timbers have lost a valuable part. It won’t be easy to replace Steve Clark.