The label “defensive midfielder” does not do Ricardo Clark full justice. Though he turned 30 last February, Clark’s game is still evolving. Long known as one of the most effective midfield enforcers in MLS, he is proving he can support attacks as well as suffocate them.
Ahead of the Dynamo’s visit to the Portland Timbers on Saturday, Clark is averaging two shots per game in MLS this season compared with a total of 18 shots in 16 appearances last term. His box-to-box ethos has already paid off this year, with a sharp strike against D.C. United in the Dynamo’s home opener and a cross that set up Giles Barnes’ equalizer in a win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. He also helped provoke an own-goal in the victory over D.C.
“I’m just trying to pick my moments when I can get forward and get good opportunities. Hopefully I can make those shots turn into goals,” he said. “I've tried to get better with training and bring that into the games. Just trying to grow as a player every single day, hopefully that shows.”
Part of his sense of timing comes from his considerable experience. An original member of the Dynamo, Clark has played more than 200 matches in MLS and featured for the United States at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He left Texas in 2010 to play in Germany and Norway, returning in August last year after Geoff Cameron joined Stoke City.
Also important is the rapport Clark has with Adam Moffat, his partner in the middle of the park. As these Opta touch graphics of average positions show, the understanding between Moffat and Clark is crucial to the Dynamo’s fortunes in the center of midfield because the two typically play so close to each other. (Moffat is 16, Clark 13.)
|Average positions in 2012||Average positions in 2013|
“There's times where I'll go forward and maybe just give him a rest, he runs a lot. It's hard to pick up. If it's just the same the whole time it's easier to defend,” said Moffat. “We enjoy playing side by side. He's a hard worker, he doesn't stop trying. I try and do the same.”
Moffat believes that Clark’s reputation as a destroyer means that he can take opponents by surprise when he does venture higher up the pitch and show off his creative side.
“In people's minds they just assume him to be the defensive midfielder. Definitely he can catch people off guard. He sets off running and gets in good spots,” he said. “He's good at making some late runs and he's got a great engine. He can get forward but he can get right back in as well. He is effective. People might say he is a defensive midfielder but if he's getting forward and adding to the attack and he's getting assists, scoring goals, then it's really good.”
With some players you only need look at a YouTube highlights reel to appreciate their talent. To understand Clark’s value to the Dynamo it helps to delve deep into the numbers. Opta statistics capture what the naked eye might sometimes overlook.
Since returning to Houston, Clark has made a clearance, block or interception on average once every 21 minutes. Indicating that he plays higher up-field than the tag “defensive midfielder” implies, he has attempted far more passes in the opposition’s half than his own – 465 to 309.
Clark is also the team’s most effective tackler. He has attempted 50 tackles and won 42 of them. That is a success rate of 84 percent, the best among regular Dynamo starters since his arrival. The Georgia native is also adept at breaking up opposition attacks. He has conceded 31 fouls - but only two were close to the Dynamo goal, showing he tries to avoid giving away free kicks in dangerous areas. And he is a victim almost as often as a perpetrator: he has won 28 fouls.
Clark agrees that much of what he does is unglamorous and goes largely unnoticed by casual observers, but thinks his strong work ethic and willingness to tackle and battle is typical of his teammates.
“That's part of the mentality of the whole team. I think a lot of people do a lot of dirty work on the team,” he said. “From the back four all the way up front. I think it goes a long way and the mentality of the team has always been to put in the work. If you do that, everything comes later. I think it's helped the team have a lot of success so far and hopefully will help the team have success in the future.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian as well as SI.com.