BEAVERTON, Ore. – “It was just a day of celebration.”
They’re the seven words you might least expect when asking an athlete about being waived. But for new Portland Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark, leaving D.C. United was a type of liberation, and a much-awaited one.
“[Being waived] wasn’t like a shock,” Clark said. “It was planned, and we were so grateful to D.C. to let me go.”
Portland fans are likely grateful, too. Clark delivered two highlight-worthy saves in the Timbers’ last home game of the season, paving the way for a 3-0 victory that vaulted Portland into Major League Soccer’s playoffs. He’s also warmed to the Rose City quickly, gushing over the thrill of the two log slabs he’s received for his home shutout performances. But before his August acquisition by the Timbers, the Michigan native had been serving as an understudy in the nation’s capital, deputizing for first-choice David Ousted but only logging 270 minutes.
“Sometimes in life, you have periods, you have seasons,” he says, explaining that the backup’s role in D.C. had, at one time, served a purpose. The former Columbus Crew SC No. 1 had briefly returned to Europe in 2017, but before that, he’d spent three years as the starter in Ohio, a spell that came after four years as the top choice at Hønefoss BK in Norway.
“I left the Crew because I felt like it was time to get away from MLS for a while and kind of reboot,” Clark confesses. “I came back a little sooner than I wanted, but my time in D.C. was a great time to work on my game, to take a step back.
“I had been a first choice for eight straight years,” he says, before estimating the number of games that entailed. “I played 90 (games) straight in Norway, and then 100 after that in MLS. [D.C.] was just a nice time to relearn my craft.”
Come August, though, it was clear his D.C. tenure was about to end. “They turned down a couple of trade requests for me,” he said. “I was trying to leave D.C. for a while.” When former United starter Bill Hamid was rumored to be seeking an MLS return, Clark got his hopes up.
“When Bill came back,” he remembers, “I was very glad, because it would be a better chance for me to leave.”
The Chicago Fire had been interested, he remembered, having learned through his agent there were potential landing spots in MLS. When the Timbers lost their number two for the season, a new suitor quickly emerged.
“Jake (Gleeson), unfortunately, got injured, something unexpected,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese remembers, “and at that moment we had to make a decision, a quick decision, to be able to bring in another goalkeeper, because it was not enough to have Kendall (McIntosh) in the roster.”
Not only had Clark become available via MLS’ waiver process, but he was one of the Timbers’ top targets.
“We had a priority in the choices that we had, and (general manager) Gavin (Wilkinson) worked magic to make sure that things happened,” Savarese said. “He was able to bring the goalkeeper that we wanted the most, and [Clark] has delivered on the expectation that we had when we wanted him to come.”
Those expectations began to be met on Sept. 1, when Jeff Attinella’s hamstring injury forced the Timbers’ first choice from a game in New England. Since, Clark has made seven more appearances, including six starts. Eight saves on nine shots faced over his last two starts, back-to-back wins against Real Salt Lake, have left Portland thankful for their late-season find.
“The game is its own language,” Clark says, when asked about joining a new team, “so when you come into a new team, you’ve just got to keep your head down and work hard, just try to help the team in any way you can.
“I haven’t known Jeff, but I’ve known of him, and he has been fantastic to work with.”
Clark says the same for Timbers goalkeeper coach Memo Valencia, whose “South American flavor to his goalkeeper training” has the 32-year-old, “back to being a 23-, 24-year-old goalkeeper again, which has been a lot of fun.” The club itself “makes the transition great,” Clark said, explaining that Wilkinson and Savarese have “been making the soccer easier, so that outside life can follow suit.”
For most athletes changing teams, that’s usually the hardest part, with stories of shock phone calls, hasty packing and short-notice flights less an exception than the rule. For Clark, however, the experience has been completely different.
His father’s side of his family is located in the Pacific Northwest, and at “every family reunion we’ve ever had,” he explains, “it’s been like, ‘when are you guys going to come West?’
“There’s a bit of midwest Clarks and a bit of Pacific Northwest Clarks, and there’s been a bit of a war going on. We landed in the Pacific Northwest, and we’ve been delighted.”
The “we” is Clark and his wife, whose role in the process he lauds. “[She’s] obviously, a great partner to me,” he says, noting an athlete’s life tests more than the talent involved. They’re now “regulars with our dog in Forest Park … on the trails, where you see my dog running around.”
His arrival may have felt abrupt, but two months into his time in Portland, Clark already seems at home. Whether that means a future in the Rose City is something he’s not worried about, for now.
“That’s another thing that I think I’ve learned in this last, particularly, four years,” he says. “It’s so much more fun to live in the moment, and instead of saying, ‘It was a great performance this weekend, what does that get me?’ It’s really fun to revel in that, and still absorb that …
“We’re not really thinking too much about [the future]. It’s just really fun to be part of a playoff push.”