Is Steve Clark a Good Fit for Columbus? / by Bill Reno

By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)

Over the course of a year, the Columbus Crew have gone from runner-ups in the 2015 MLS Cup to bottom dwellers, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference in 2016. After losing a number of games off conceding late goals and tying over a third of their games, Crew fans are right to be polarized when evaluating their team, especially the defense. In 2015 the Crew conceded 53 goals and another 58 in 2016, both getting close to most in the league. Currently all eyes are on Steve Clark, with debate on both sides on if he is the right goalkeeper for Columbus.

Every team needs a goalkeeper that fits their style of play. For example, if a defense is bleeding crosses, they may want a strong goalkeeper to handle the dangerous lobs into the box. When looking at Columbus, it’s easy to look at the number of goals they’re giving up and think they need a better shot stopper, when in reality, Clark is above average on saving shots in both expected goals and save percentage. The Crew don’t need a spectacular shot stopper. Instead, there are two main things they require from their goalkeeper.

Possession Play

It’s not a secret Columbus try to possess the ball in a methodical build up when leaving their own defensive third. Starting in their typical 4-2-3-1, both outside backs look to advance to the midfield with a defensive mid dropping back, between the center backs. Columbus will ping the ball around before getting into the attacking third, which is why they’re second in possession and pass completion in 2016. So needless to say, Columbus need a goalkeeper who is confident with his feet.

Not many goalkeepers can do what Clark does with the ball. If we split each goalkeeper’s passes in increments of ten yards, we can compare passing percentages across the league. Looking in the gray columns, you can see the passing percentages for each goalkeeper for each increment.

The part of the field where Clark stands out from the rest of the league is with passes ranging 40-60 yards. The league average for 40-50 and 50-60 yard passes are 58% and 38%, while Clark connects 68% and 52%, respectively. Perhaps the best way to show Clark’s passing abilities are by comparing how many passes every goalkeeper were to complete, if they made the same amount as Clark in each region. (The math for this is done in the green columns on the spreadsheet.)

1. Josh Saunders +5
2. Bobby Shuttleworth +3
3. Steve Clark 0
4. Tim Howard -1
5. Joe Bendik -12
6. Chris Seitz -14
7. Luis Robles -19
8. Andre Blake -27
9. Jake Gleeson -27
10. Evan Bush -32
11. Alex Bono -35
12. David Ousted -35
13. Brian Rowe -35
14. League Avg -36
15. Zac MacMath -36
16. Brad Knighton -41
17. Bill Hamid -46
18. Nick Rimando -48
19. David Bingham -49
20. Joe Willis -54
21. Stefan Frei -55
22. Clint Irwin -61
23. Sean Johnson -64
24. Matt Lampson -70
25. Tim Melia -80
26. Travis Worra -119

This isn’t to say who is the best passer in the league, it is simply a way to put other goalkeepers in Clark’s shoes. If Clint Irwin attempted the same type and amount of passes Clark did, he would look to complete 61 less passes than Clark did this season while Saunders would look to complete five more over the season. There are a lot of variables within this but it does show that Clark is one of the top passing goalkeepers in the league without a doubt. For a team that looks to move the ball, Clark is one of the obvious choices in the league.

Breakaways

Because of Columbus’ offensive set up, their defense is at risk. As the outside backs slide up the flanks and offense adds numbers to their midfield, Columbus is susceptible to counters that leave their goalkeeper in 1v1 situations. Clark’s approach in 1v1 situations is one of the best in the league. He’s patient when he needs to be yet knows when to crunch the attacker. He’s also one of the few goalkeepers to institute the spread leg approach (also known as the k barrier), which he utilizes very well.

Here’s a perfect example of the type of goalkeeper Columbus need in their goalkeeper:

A poor turnover in the midfield and two passes later from Philadelphia, Clark is in a breakaway situation. Watch Clark’s response to Le Toux’s touch. Several goalkeepers would come sprinting out on the slotted pass but Clark waits to see how to respond. If he rushes at the ball immediately, Le Toux can chip Clark or possibly round him as well. Le Toux’s touch is controlled so all Clark can do is shut down the angle, which he does wonderfully with the k barrier. It’s a situation that looks easy because Clark is very good at them, but one that would give most goalkeepers fits.

Conclusion

Recently, Manchester City’s goalkeeper Claudio Bravo came under scrutiny when he turned over a pass that led to a red card on Bravo trying to stop the turnover becoming a goal. Pep Guardiola defended the goalkeeper and style of play, essentially saying the risks were well worth it in the long run. Now Columbus is in a similar situation where they can make a parallel decision to Guardiola by standing by their set up or make a drastic change with their team’s set up.

It’s clear that Clark is not the typical shot-stopping goalkeeper. He employs more of a chaotic, sprawling style, similar to SKC’s Tim Melia. When it works and the teams are winning, it’s a lot of fun to watch. But when the team is not doing well, people are looking to point fingers when they don’t truly understand the situation. If Columbus wants to continue their style of play, Clark is the easy choice. He’s one of the few goalkeepers in the league who meets the requirements and at the price he’s signed for, he’s the best bargain. Simply from the two games that Columbus’ back up Bradley Stuver saw, it’s clear to see Columbus need a goalkeeper who can play with his feet and scramble for saves. 

As Columbus enters the off-season, they will most certainly look to fix what isn’t working. When it comes to the goalkeeper position, they have three decisions. They could shoehorn an ill-fitted goalkeeper in without much luck. (Some fans are calling for Zach Steffen without realizing what they’re asking from the young keeper.) Perhaps Columbus could try to look elsewhere and sign a player of Tim Howard’s caliber, but it’ll cost them, as Howard signed for $2.1 million as a designated player. Their third option is to stick with the clearly qualified Steve Clark for a little more than 1/10th of the price of Howard.