MATHEW WAGNER - Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Seven weeks ago, Steve Clark and Hønefoss were sitting in a precarious spot.
The team went nine matches winless, including six losses, and on three occasions, Clark allowed four or more goals past him in that span.
Since then, however, Clark and Co. have managed to turn it around, picking up nine points out of the last six matches. The six-match span has allowed Hønefoss to climb out of the cellar of the Tippeligaen, although it still sits in the relegation zone, tied on points for the relegation-playoff spot and five points away from safety.
"That was a tough stretch," Clark said. "We weren't just losing - we were getting beat pretty bad some games. Now, we feel good. We haven't peaked yet for this year, so it's the right time to do it. I really believe it that going forward, we can save this season."
The morale has risen considerably when the team completed comebacks in two consecutive weeks - a 2-1 win over then-ninth place Lillestrøm on September 21 and a 2-2 tie against then-third place Viking on September 28.
While these comebacks against two good opponents have the team believing again, the American goalkeeper explained the team cannot afford to keep giving up early goals. especially when playing Rosenborg and defending-champion Molde in the next two matches.
Clark and Hønefoss accomplished that goal against Rosenborg, picking up his fourth shutout of the season. Another stern test comes after the international break, when the team hosts Molde on October 20.
"Getting scored on first every game is keeping me up at night," Clark said somewhat jokingly. "It's something we need to change, and I'm working really hard to make that happen.
"But we never quit. When you're down two goals at the bottom of the table with six games left to go and come back and get a point against the third-best team in the league, it says a lot about us."
Hønefoss' chances of survival rest squarely on Clark's shoulders, and the Oakland University-product has picked up his play during the team's recent surge.
The local newspaper, Ringerikes Blad, rates Clark very high this season, giving him a team-high 5.52 average rating for the season. He's only one of two players to participate in all 26 league matches for the team.
During this short turnaround, Clark's play has stepped it up, receiving no rating below a 5, and he's made multiple acrobatic and athletic saves to keep his team alive. He also help set up the match-tying goal against Viking, intercepting a ball near the halfway line before booting it along the right wing for a teammate.
"With a tenth of the budget as the bigger teams in the league, I have to play well in order to win," Clark said. "That's a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but I feel I'm up to the task. I'm getting better all the time, and the best is yet to come for me this year and in my career."
With Clark being the only goalkeeper to play in competitive matches for Hønefoss, the 6-foot-1 goalkeeper has to worry about something he's never had to worry about before - yellow-card accumulation.
In Norway, a player is suspended when he receives three yellow cards, and going into the final four matches, Clark has two. The Mason, Mich., native recorded both cards in the two matches prior to this past weekend - one for time-wasting and the other for pushing over a player in his way while trying to get the ball out quickly after grabbing a free kick.
Before this season, Clark had yet to record more than one yellow card in a season during his three-year reign in net for Hønefoss, but he said he isn't worried about picking up a third one.
"I've never had a yellow-card suspension in my career, so it's not a huge problem for me," Clark said. "I'm going to make sure I'm not saying a peep, and I'll be hitting my goal kicks in due time."
Whatever happens at the end of this season could play a role in where Clark plies his trade next season, as Clark's contract with Hønefoss ends New Year's Eve.
Clark admitted it's an interesting situation. He said he could see himself suiting up for Hønefoss again, but he and the team decided to worry about the contract situation after the season. Clark also said he could see himself playing in MLS next season as well, saying he follows the United States' professional league from afar.
Still, before he can figure out next year's plans, Clark has five matches to try and save his current team.
"I want to keep this team up, whether I'm playing here next year or not," Clark said. "I haven't really been discussing too much with the team - we've kind of agreed to put winning first because with relegation looming, that's the most important thing.
"I don't know where my future lies, but I can promise that I'm going to be focused these five games or whatever we have left."