Not for the first time, Ricardo Clark was the last player off the training field at Houston Sports Park on Thursday, putting in a little extra work ahead of Saturday’s away game against the Columbus Crew (6:30 p.m. CT; CSN Plus/Telemundo).
The Dynamo are grateful that they’re also seeing the midfielder on the field in MLS for sustained periods again after he missed nine matches earlier in the season with a concussion suffered back in April against the New York Red Bulls.
The 31-year-old has started the Dynamo’s past six MLS games and had three shots against the Philadelphia Union last Friday, matching his season high. He has two goals and three assists so far this season in 14 appearances, but he also makes hugely valuable contributions that are more subtle and often unnoticed — timely interceptions, tackles to break up play, runs to create or fill space.
“Nine weeks is a long time to be out, it’s pretty much an offseason. So I’m still trying to get back into form, each and every game I’m trying to improve and I feel I’m almost myself, and hopefully each and every game I’m getting better,” Clark told HoustonDynamo.com.
For Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear, the veteran’s return after about two months on the sidelines almost feels like a new signing. After struggling to cope with injuries and absences for much of the first half of the season, the Dynamo can now call on a midfield four who all have World Cup experience. Clark played for the United States in the 2010 tournament while Brad Davis, Luis Garrido and Boniek García appeared in Brazil earlier this year.
“We were really tested this year with our depth problems and you always hope that it turns around. With those two signings [DaMarcus Beasley and Garrido] and Rico getting healthy it’s almost like three new signings,” said Kinnear.
Clark said he is still working to develop a relationship with Garrido in the center of midfield, but the early days of their partnership are promising despite the language barrier — the 23-year-old on loan from CD Olimpia in Honduras does not speak English.
“I’m still trying to get an understanding with him even though the initial start has been pretty good. Getting used to his tendencies and how he likes to play. The understanding is only going to get better with time. I speak very little Spanish, I go through Beasley or Servando Carrasco for interpretation, translations, but it’s not too difficult on the field once you start playing, so I just kind of deal with it as it goes,” said Clark.
“Obviously the experience helps. More importantly it’s just getting games together, establishing a presence in the midfield and getting a rhythm going with each other, I think that’s going to be the key thing. You can have great players but if you haven’t played together then it’s a little bit difficult. The start’s been good so hopefully we can keep going.”
Striker Will Bruin appreciates Clark’s occasional forays into the penalty box to offer support to attacks. “He’s always following up the play and he’s kind of that third guy coming in the box and that’s what we need,” he said.
“You always know what you’re going to get with Rico, we’ve missed it at times, I think we’ve missed him a lot. He covers a lot of ground, wins a lot of balls in there and he’s kind of the unsung hero, he springs a lot of attacks by winning tackles and getting it wide and his work rate’s really good.”
Clark’s return and run of games also symbolizes what feels like a gradual return to a settled lineup for Houston after months of forced changes meant the side struggled to find a regular rhythm. “Consistency is always good, it’s always good to have similar faces, guys get comfortable with each other, knowing who’s going to be across, who’s going to be their partner,” said Bruin.
The Dynamo have deployed the same starting XI in the past three games. The last time Kinnear was able to pick an identical lineup for three straight MLS games was back in March-April. With two wins in their past three matches, the Dynamo head for Ohio feeling optimistic that they can build momentum and climb the Eastern Conference standings. After all, late season surges have become something of a Dynamo trademark.
“Obviously the history shows for itself but I don’t think we want to base too much off of history, take it one day at a time, we all know it’s an important part of the season and it’s time to buckle down and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Clark.
“I think we’re a little bit better than what the standings show. It’s just a matter of tightening up on different aspects of our game as a team and that’s what we’re trying to do.” A consistent lineup with Clark at the core can only help.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.