After three quiet years in Germany and Norway, Ricardo Clark returned to the Dynamo last August to help mitigate the loss of Geoff Cameron. Since then, it's not a stretch to say he has become one of the Dynamo’s most important players.
Two weeks ago, Clark was forced to leave the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship because of injury, and his status for Saturday's all-important second leg (6:30 pm CT; NBCSN, Univision Deportes) remains unclear. If he is not in the starting XI for the Dynamo, history suggests they will have a very tough time defeating Sporting Kansas City.
If Clark is able to go, his recent form suggests that Houston have a great shot of celebrating at Sporting Park for the third consecutive year.
That point could not have been made any clearer than when Clark went down with a different injury this season at the end of August. After coming out of the Aug. 17 game against Seattle in the 39th minute, Clark did not start any of the Dynamo’s next four games. Houston lost three of four, picking up a point in the other, and were outscored 12-2.
Clark appeared as a substitute in the fourth game with Houston already down 2-0 to the Red Bulls, a lead that would balloon and eventually end in a Dynamo 4-1 loss. It's worth noting that three of the four were road games, but that stretch could still be called the club’s worst run of form this season.
There was a fifth game Clark did not start this season -- May 8 against D.C. United -- which Houston won going away, 4-0. Taking all five games into account, the Dynamo conceded 2.4 goals per game when Clark did not start.
In the 29 games in which he was a member of Dominic Kinnear's XI, Houston conceded exactly one goal per game. Extending the club's form during those 29 games to the full 34-game season would give the Dynamo the third-best defensive record in MLS instead of sixth. More importantly, in the 29 games Clark started, the Dynamo won 45 percent of the time.
Since Clark returned from injury in late summer, the Dynamo have played 11 games (including the playoffs), scored 17 goals and conceded only nine. Before Clark’s return, the Dynamo played 27 games, scoring 31 goals and conceding 35.
Clark, along with the Dynamo, has taken his play to an even higher level since returning. Before the health-induced break, he completed 60.66 percent of his passes in the final third, but since returning to the field, he has increased that percentage to 68.38 percent.
A performance uptick toward the end of the season is nothing new for the 30-year-old, though. Last year, he took a full shot more per game in the postseason as opposed to regular season and saw the amount of chances he created for his teammates increase as well.
Now it's just a matter of whether Clark's available come Saturday. If he is, it's hard to imagine Houston won't find a way to earn the win it will take to move on. If not, Sporting Park may just be blue hell for Dynamo fans eyeing a third straight MLS Cup appearance.