In the latest of our series of interviews with 2013 Dynamo Awards winners, HoustonDynamo.com spoke with the team's midfield lynchpin, who was voted players' player of the year.
Ricardo Clark might be most visible when he's not around. A master of doing the unglamorous things that sometimes go unnoticed, everyone in orange felt his absence on the rare occasions when he was not patrolling the midfield in 2013.
Clark played in 30 of Houston's 34 MLS regular-season fixtures last year, but in August and September he missed three straight matches and came on as a substitute in another. The Dynamo picked up only one point from those four fixtures, scoring twice and conceding twelve times.
And, of course, Clark was absent for the biggest night of the year. He suffered a left leg injury in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against Sporting Kansas City and did not recover in time for the return match at Sporting Park, though he says he is fully healed now.
It would be too simplistic to attribute the downturn in results solely to Clark not being there, but it was a reminder of his immense value to the team. His quiet personality, unselfish style and primarily defensive role mean that he perhaps does not receive the level of nationwide publicity that his performances merit. But his co-workers are fully aware of Clark's importance, voting him Players' Player of the Year in last month's Dynamo Awards.
"It's definitely an honor to be selected by my teammates—they're the ones fighting alongside me, so it's a special award. I appreciate that my teammates appreciate what I'm doing on the field," said Clark.
Filling space, keeping track of midfield runs, breaking up play, holding possession and starting attacks with simple passes are not typically the stuff of headlines. This year Clark attracted attention by producing his best offensive season to date.
He scored four goals and contributed four assists in the MLS regular season, adding another goal and an assist in the playoffs. His 46 shots ranked third behind the primary forward pairing of Will Bruin and Giles Barnes. When he rejoined the Dynamo in the summer of 2012 after a spell with Eintracht Frankfurt he took only nine shots in eleven regular season games, scoring once.
"A lot of it had to do with just my role on the team, [head coach Dominic Kinnear] wanted me to be higher in the center of midfield and I think that allowed me to be involved in more plays and obviously score the occasional goal. I think that was the reason [for the increase]," Clark said.
"I'd worked on getting in good positions in training and I was trying to carry that over to games, thankfully I did and I hope I can turn a lot more of those shots into goals this year."
Clark's goals were not merely a nice bonus, the icing on the cake—they were vital to the Dynamo reaching the playoffs. He scored in a 2-0 success over D.C. United on the opening day of the 2013 campaign and his next three strikes were all game-winners in 1-0 victories.
His favorite was the low shot from the edge of the box against the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, first leg. The coolly-taken effort laid the foundation for a struggling Dynamo to recover a 2-0 deficit and ultimately beat Mike Petke's men after extra time at Red Bull Arena. "It was a goal that catapulted our team and it was a great series to play in, against the number one team in the conference. I'm thankful I was able to help the team go forward," he said.
Defensively, one statistic stands out: Clark collected only two yellow cards all year, impressively low for a player who is tasked with making tackles in the heat of the midfield battle. That speaks to his technique, calm demeanour and solid judgment.
At the age of 30, the Atlanta, Ga., native resists the suggestion that he is in his prime. "I really don't like to think of myself or my career in that way. My mentality that I have, I always want to improve and always want to get better. I feel that if I say I'm in my prime then I'm kind of plateauing, when I want to keep moving higher and higher, if that makes sense," he said.
"I always want to improve all aspects of my game, even the things I did well last year I'd like to do even better. I feel I can do even better with my finishing, my movement on and off the ball, dribbling, passing—all aspects of my game I want to improve."
Most importantly, Clark wants to add collective glory to personal success after missing out in such a painful fashion at the climax of an excellent year left a bittersweet taste. "At the end of the day the main goal is to win the championship and we fell short of that," he said.
"Even though maybe it was my best season yet, in a way it kind of isn't, because we didn't win the championship. It leaves a bit of hunger inside of me, and I'm sure in the rest of the team."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.