Steve Clark, iPTFC, 7.23.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Inside PTFC | The knock-on effects of a goalkeeper like Steve Clark

There is no position on the soccer field where performance is defined with as much subjectivity as goalkeeper, a strange state considering the role has one clear, chief responsibility. As the last line of defense, the goalkeeper’s tasked with preventing, well, goals. While strikers can also be judged by the opportunities they create, and a defender’s distribution can augment their value, goalkeepers live in the most bottom-line of worlds. Good ones just don’t allow a lot of goals.

That makes it easy to reduce goalkeepers to one number – how often they allow goals – though let’s not be all strawman-y about this: Most people’s evaluations are more nuanced. Many favor shot-stopping above all. Others’ scales tip toward commanding a penalty area. The era of the modern `keeper has turned attention to a player’s work on the ball, while the ability to organize a defense is evoked often, even if that’s difficult to assess through a television screen, and without knowledge of a team’s approach.

There’s no rule that defines how much we should value one of those skills over the others. There are analyses which try to capture how much an effective punch, smothering a through ball, or grabbing a cross helps prevent goals – efforts that allow us to have more numbers than mere goals allowed. But the reality is very few of those metrics are impacting the discussion around professional goalkeeping, leaving us with assessments defined by preferences, selective analysis, and subjectivity.

It’s within that picture that I want to talk about Steve Clark, as well the performance he gave on Sunday at CenturyLink Field. It was an effort which, with seven saves matching his high mark as a Timbers player, could be judged in the simplest numerical terms. Saving 87.5 percent of the shots you face is an undeniably good ratio, but the single goal Clark allowed fed a great indicator, too. Seattle Sounders FC had averaged 1.9 goals per game at home coming into Sunday’s match.

Yet for most who watched Sunday’s derby in Seattle, Clark’s shot stopping is unlikely to be his quality that stood out. In fact, the save many may member most, his most difficult, arguably wasn’t a save at all. Clark did the right thing in choosing security over chance while pushing this first-half try over goal …

… but looking at the replay, it’s likely that ball wasn’t even going on target. Perhaps this first-minute save, below, was Clark’s best stop of the match, but we usually credit this less to a `keeper’s ability to stop shots than their ability to read and react to play.

This is technically a save, but it’s a more a testament to the work goalkeepers do before their reflexes take over. That is really where Clark’s strengths shined on Sunday, though unlike that first-minute save on Raúl Ruidíaz, most of his reads did not make their way into the saves column.

Instead, they became interceptions, with Clark intervening on passes sent behind the Timbers’ defense. Instead, they became punches or catches, with Clark further policing his penalty area on crosses and corners. So much of Clark’s Sunday value couldn’t be captured by a goalkeeper’s top-line numbers, but in that way, so much of what he did tied into how the Timbers, over the last two months, are successfully defending their opponents.

Let’s put that last, big-picture part off for a second. Instead, let’s talk two specific ways Clark’s performance, and his broader style, helped the Timbers on Sunday.

We’ll start with his play on balls on the ground, something we already saw, above, but something that was also evident as the first half closed …

… and the second opened:

Perhaps none of these plays seem that remarkable, and Clark isn’t the only goalkeeper that can make them, but in the fact that he even had to make those plays, as well as moments like this, when he’s part of the team’s shape as they build, …

… you see how the Timbers’ style has evolved. With every team, there’s an area behind the defense that the goalkeeper is expected to patrol. With Clark, Portland’s slowly increased the size of that area, playing into his eagerness to impact the game further up the field.

Closer to his six, Clark had a strong day, too, though that also played into his ability to impact play away from his goal. When a goalkeeper can be relied to be an extra field player, a team’s defense can play higher, knowing they have cover in the space they leave behind. For Portland, that meant contesting the ball higher, steering play toward the flanks and forcing Seattle to play wide-to-in.

The Sounders had 22 open-play crosses on Sunday, their second-highest total of the season, leading to a lot of opportunities for Clark to do this …

… this …

…and this:

Like his play on balls on the ground, these are efforts that don't go into the save column. But they do prevent chances, and while their value, individually, might not equal a try that would otherwise go in goal, the cumulative impact of all these punches, catches and clearances makes it easy for a goalkeeper’s biggest contributions to transcend the saves column. Those things, though, can be tracked, and in the context and location of where they happen on the field, we can see the value of the chances a goalkeeper prevents, had those interventions not occurred.

This is part of what makes the continued subjectivity around goalkeeping somewhat confusing. Of course, there is only so much statistics can capture, but when it comes to goalkeepers, they can capture more than we acknowledge. We acknowledge saves – especially the athletic ones – and we acknowledge goals allowed, but no matter what those numbers say, we should always be looking for the more complete picture. Part of that is analyzing the video of players’ performances, but part of that is also looking for something objective, something that tries to go beyond our possible errors, as a way of confirming what we saw.

Even then, there are things a goalkeeper like Clark does that can’t be directly quantified, yet. In his willingness to act like that extra field player, Clark allows his defenses to play higher – to move his team’s line of restraint further up the field. With a higher defense, midfielders can play higher, which means forwards can play higher, too. Instead of the line where you’re confronting teams being in your own half, all of a sudden, you’re forcing the other team to make decisions in their half of the field. When you turn the ball over, you’re 10, 15, 20 yards closer to goal than you would be without a player like Clark behind you.

There are dangers to this, of course. We saw this on Sunday, with Seattle’s only goal. If the Timbers were playing differently, the mistakes Julio Cascante, Larrys Mabiala and Clark made on this play may not have been forced, at all:

But less talked about is the line’s impact on the next goal, one that starts with Cascante winning a ball at the edge of Portland’s defensive third. Instead of being collapsed in or near the edge of his own penalty area, the Timbers defender is part of a higher, more compact shape. He’s able to jump in and contest play, with the team’s organization allowing them to quickly convert the turnover into a game-winning goal.

How a team can and wants to play is determined as much by choice as personnel. If you’ve planned your roster right, those worlds complement each other. Earlier this year, with teams like the Colorado Rapids and the New England Revolution, we saw that conflict undermine results. With Los Angeles FC, we’ve seen a squad tailored to their coach’s approach.

With Clark in goal, Portland has not only chosen to play a higher defensive line, but they’ve been able to pull it off. They’ve reached a synergy between their talent and their approach. And now, as has been evident in their wins at New York City FC, LAFC and Seattle, there’s less room for subjectivity when interpreting their results.

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