PORTLAND — Steve Clark was prepared to celebrate the Portland Timbers’ first clean sheet of the season.
Prior to Saturday’s match against the Houston Dynamo, Clark procured a mask of Michael Myers from the slasher film series “Halloween.” After the Timbers routed the Dynamo 4-0, Clark donned the mask before raising his celebratory log slab in front of the Timbers Army.
“Providence Park is going to be a house of horrors this summer,” Clark said. “It’s going to be a tough place to come. That’s kind of what I’m saying. This is a bunch of monsters out here.”
Clark could play an important role in helping the Timbers turn Providence Park into a house of horrors for opponents this summer.
The 33-year-old goalkeeper joined the Timbers as a backup late in the 2018 season and went on to make just six starts last year, serving as an injury replacement for starting goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. Clark remained on the bench to start the 2019 season as Attinella, who has impressed with his shot-stopping ability, once again claimed the starting role.
But after a strong start to the year, Attinella faltered in a game against the Columbus Crew on April 20, twice throwing the ball straight to Crew players. Pedro Santos scored the Crew’s lone goal of the game after intercepting a pass from Attinella. A week later, Clark was in the starting lineup for a game against Toronto FC. Clark, who has competed in MLS for six years and spent three years as the starting goalkeeper for the Crew, was ready to make the most of his opportunity.
While Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said at the time that the decision to start Clark against Toronto had been made prior to the Columbus game, it would prove to be more than a spot start for Clark. After a solid outing against Toronto, Clark went on to start three of the next four games, making a tremendous diving stop to deny Albert Rusnak on a penalty kick on May 4. Portland went on to earn a big 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake on the road.
“I’ve played a lot in my career, so it’s business as usual for me,” Clark said. “I feel quite good about my game. I feel aggressive and confident when I’m playing and I hope that translates to the team. … It feels like home when I’m out there in a way.”
Attinella returned to the lineup for Portland’s home opener against LAFC on June 1, but he made another costly mistake in distribution as his ill-conceived pass to Jorge Villafana was cut off by Carlos Vela in the sixth minute. Vela easily scored to give LAFC an early lead. LAFC went on to win 3-2.
“That’s the life of a goalie, sometimes you go through little spells like this and, for one reason or another, you maybe play the wrong ball,” said Attinella after the game. “When you make a mistake like that as a goalie, you get punished. … For me, it’s all about staying confident, learning from my mistakes and protecting the ball a little bit more, so we’re not giving up those cheap goals.”
The mistake once again opened the door for Clark, who has now started in three straight games. Clark had an exceptional outing against the Seattle Sounders in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup on June 12, making seven saves to lead the Timbers to a 2-1 win. Following the performance, Clark went on to start and earn clean sheets in Portland’s 4-0 win over the LA Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 and the club’s 4-0 win over the Dynamo in MLS play last week.
“We’re lucky to have great goalkeepers,” Savarese said. “They all can play. They all can start. They all can do well. Clark is playing. He’s doing well. Attinella has given a lot to this club. (Aljaz) Ivacic is just getting fitter. He’s playing with T2. Little by little, he’s progressing. I’m very content with that area of the field and I think everyone is doing well.”
While Clark appears to have claimed the starting goalkeeper role at this point, the competition at the position remains as fierce as ever.
Attinella, Ivacic, and Kendall McIntosh will continue to compete with Clark for playing time this season. While McIntosh has yet to make an MLS appearance in three years with the club, the Timbers signed Ivacic prior to the 2019 season in hopes that the 25-year-old goalkeeper would be able to fight for the starting spot now and potentially become a long-term option for the club. Ivacic spent the first three months of the season sidelined with an injury but is now fully healthy and has started the last two games for Portland’s lower-division club, T2.
The competition only motivates Clark.
“Competition is a part of life as a professional,” Clark said. “It’s something that I enjoy, something I have a taste for. So, I’m having a good time. I’m sharp. I’m ready to go.”