Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIPhotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
Ricardo Clark understands the dramatic highs and lows his career has taken him through. And he’s fine with the cards he’s been dealt. It’s through such challenges, after all, that one grows.
For the 29-year-old, the past three years have carried their fair share of adversity. There was the move to German side Eintracht Frankfurt that never quite seemed like the right fit. The injuries and inconsistent form that slowed his progress on the field. And, of
course, the U.S. national team’s World Cup exit that Clark accepted much of the blame for.
“Having to deal with the ups and downs,” Clark said, “I think I’m stronger mentally. I’ve been able to press through.”
Clark is quick to point out he hasn’t endured alone. A dedicated family man, he acknowledges leaning on his wife, Martha, and his two children, Mateo and Amaya, in good times and bad. He particularly enjoys seeing his children take pride in having a dad who gets to ply his trade before thousands of enthusiastic spectators.
It’s little surprise, then, that when Clark contemplated returning to the Houston Dynamo this past summer, the familiarity for those closest to him was key.
“There were a lot of factors involved,” Clark said. “I ended up in a situation in Europe that wasn’t comfortable for me and family, and moving back to Houston, for me, was a guarantee.”
Since re-signing with the Dynamo in August, Clark hasn’t missed a beat, stepping back into the gritty defensive midfield role he excelled in with Houston from 2006 to 2009. While the player has evolved, his essence remains the same.
“He’s come back and fit right into the team,” Houston midfielder Brad Davis said. “He covers an amazing amount of ground, he makes the game easier for players around, he reads the game extremely well, he defends well, and he loves to get into the attack.”
With the Dynamo, Clark’s life has been simplified. During his two and a half years with Eintracht, matters weren’t so straightforward.
Although learning German wasn’t critical for living in an international hub such as Frankfurt, Clark said the language barrier was at times an issue on the practice field. Adjusting to a more arduous training routine, including frequent two-a-days, also took some getting used to.
But perhaps nothing was as disruptive as the calf injury early in 2010 that sidelined him before he could debut. While he recovered in time to make the U.S. roster for that summer’s World Cup, he wasn’t in top form.
In the Americans’ 2-1 loss to Ghana in the round of 16, Clark became the subject of intense scrutiny when he committed the turnover that led to the Black Stars’ opening goal before being substituted in the 31st minute.
That match, it turned out, would be his last appearance with the U.S. team for more than a year.
“I mean, it is what is,” Clark said of that fateful game’s aftermath, before noting, “After the World Cup, I actually was invited to a couple camps by Bob Bradley. But I declined because I wanted to get into a rhythm with my club team.”
But doing so was easier said than done. Playing under three coaches during his tenure in Frankfurt, Clark logged just 15 league contests before being loaned to Norwegian club Stabaek this past spring and ultimately being released by Eintracht in July.
“Sometimes you’re not playing to your ability, but other times it’s out of your control,” Clark said. “If there’s a coach that doesn’t agree with your philosophy, that’s just how it is in the soccer world.”
Clark, though, never fell off the U.S. radar. After being capped in Jurgen Klinsmann’s first game in charge of the U.S., an August 2011 match against Mexico, Clark made two appearances for the Americans this past January, burying the stoppage-time winner in a 1-0 friendly triumph over Venezuela.
“It was awesome to be back,” Clark said. “I had been involved, here and there, with the national team since the World Cup, but definitely not to the extent that I used to be. It was a good group of guys, and I took advantage of the opportunity as much as I could.”
For now, however, Clark is focused on the Dynamo. After coming off the bench in his first two matches back, the Atlanta native has started seven consecutive games of Houston’s playoff push. In a 2-0 win over New England on Sept. 29, he returned to the score sheet with a gorgeous redirection of a Davis cross.
Back on the field with regularity, Clark has shown he still can deliver hard tackles, clog passing lanes and distribute out of midfield while offering one of the busiest engines in MLS.
“He can take his experiences from before when he was MLS, he can take his experiences from Germany, and put those all together,” Davis said. “He’s a good leader, and you know what you’re getting from Rico: He works extremely, extremely hard.”