BEAVERTON, Ore. – Steve Clark reacted like a man who knew his award was coming, even though, as he recalled this week, “I was just told after the game.”
That’s how the tradition works. The player who Portland Timbers fans choose annually as the club’s Supporters’ Player of the Year gets notified immediately after the last home game’s final whistle. He’s then invited to ascend the capo stand in Providence Park’s North End, where he’s given his award: a boxing- or wrestling-inspired belt that anoints him as the fans’ champion for the season.
“I was honored, to say the least,” Clark remembers. He had just stepped beyond the field’s lines when he was told. With the Timbers’ having defeated the visiting San Jose Earthquakes to earn a spot in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, Clark was already in a mood to celebrate. So when he learned about the award, the Timbers’ starting goalkeeper ascended the story-high stand two steps at a time, took the belt when handed to him, and stepped with two feet leaning against the first row’s railing, elevating himself for the crowd.
In a year when Clark’s sense of theater has been on display throughout – from his post-save celebrations to the Michael Myers Halloween mask he has adorned after games – the 33-year-old didn’t disappoint. It was as if he’s just pinned his opponent and climbed triumphantly to the squared circle’s top rope, ceremonially raising his hands in triumph for an arena’s crowd that bought tickets for his show.
“We were all excited, first and foremost, about the win,” he said at the Timbers’ Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, when asked to reflect on a moment from three days before. “To get recognized for that, there are a lot of deserving players.”
In his first full season in the Rose City, Clark has earned those honors, and potentially more.
At 77.1 percent, Clark has posted the second-highest save percentage in Major League Soccer. His rate of catches per 90 minute (0.75) is third-highest in MLS while his 1.04 goals-against average in 2,160 minutes is second among regular goalkeepers, trailing only Los Angeles FC’s Tyler Miller.
Comb the other statistics Opta keeps for goalkeepers – numbers like punches, drops, saving catches and accurate sweeper keepings – and Clark ranks in the top half of the league’s regular goalkeepers in each one, with the -7.90 difference between his team’s expect goals allowed (based on probabilities from where shots are taken, as well as the shot types) and his actual goals allowed second to only New England’s Matt Turner.
It’s the kind of overall profile that demands consideration for MLS’ biggest goalkeeping honors: a spot in the league’s Best XI; as well as the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year award. There are other good candidates out there, but no matter your stylistic preferences, Clark’s putting up numbers that require a look. If you’re focused only on shot-stopping, there’s a case to be made. Same for controlling your penalty area. Want a player who patrols the space behind the defense when his team pushes higher? Those numbers are there, too, as is the eye test, which has reinforced the stylistic impact Clark’s had on his team.
Without another goalkeeper making a clear case for the honor, the 10 games Clark didn’t start at the beginning of the year shouldn’t be enough to exclude him from any discussions. Clark isn’t an obvious choice for MLS’ best `keeper, but he is an obvious consideration for it.
“When you move now, into the playoffs, you kind of start fresh,” Clark said, when asked to reflect on his year. “I’ve had a good season. I’m proud of what I’ve done. If you get any awards on top of that, that’s the bonus. But first and foremost, intrinsically, I think that I’ve performed very well. I think that I can be gratified for that within myself, and we’ll see what happens with those awards.”
Even if no other awards come, it’s worth remembering Clark’s ascent. Last year, when D.C. United’s Bill Hamid returned to MLS from Europe, Clark was placed on waivers by his previous team, leaving him free to be picked up by teams better situated in the league’s waiver order. When Portland picked him up to help with an injury-hit depth chart, Clark was thankful to get a change of scenery. He looked forward to spending time in a part of the country some of his family called home.
Since then, Clark has returned to a starting job, helping the Timbers evolve their style while earning plaudits along the way. Some voters’ ballots will surely have him as the season’s top goalkeeper, but even if those honors ultimately elude him, one electorate has already closed their polls.
“We have a knowledgeable fanbase, so to get the [Supporters’ Player of the Year] award from them, it means even more,” Clark explained. “I think Portland is a soccer city. People understand the game, here, more than in other places I’ve played.
“It’s one thing to win a Supporters’ Player of the Year when the supporters don’t know much, but I do feel like this is an educated fanbase. It means even more for that.