DAVID SMITH - Saturday, July 30, 2011
As Eintracht Frankfurt begin what they hope to be a single season exiled in Germany's 2. Bundesliga, Ricardo Clark feels the team's chemistry and character will help them make a quick return to the top.
An astonishingly bad second half last season during which the team amassed a mere ten points while scoring an embarrassing total of five goals in their final 17 games saw the team drop from seventh place at the winter break to an eventual 17th-place finish and automatic relegation.
Now just two games into the 2011-12 season, they have nearly equaled that goal total, albeit at one division lower on the totem, and are widely considered amongst the favorites to finish the season atop the division.
"We're favorites to win, but that doesn't mean that things will come to us easy," Clark assesses of the team's reaction to preseason expectations. "The 2. Bundesliga is still a good league, there's good play and there's a lot of fight, so we have to match that and overcome whatever challenges [we face] and make sure we stay consistent over the whole season."
In both of their first two outings in the current season, Frankfurt has come back from first-half deficits to pick up points, and Clark feels this is evidence of an underlying strength providing a foundation for the squad.
"I wouldn't say that there is a huge difference [from last season]," Clark evaluates of the core approach and fabric of the team, "Of course we have new players that add a different dimension to the game."
"The group is coming together and there's a good team chemistry right now," he continues. "Whether it's 1. or 2. Bundesliga, what matters is team character and we've showed a lot of good spirit and character."
Since originally signing with the club as a free agent during the January 2010 transfer window, Clark has struggled to hold down a starting position, too often falling prey to untimely injuries that have kept him from developing and maintaining any long-term consistency in his game.
This began almost immediately upon his arrival, preventing him from playing all but the last three games that season, and has been a recurring theme in the time since.
A broken cheekbone earlier this year in February ended a string of three straight starts, then after recovering from that injury and regaining a regular spot on the field, an abdominal strain kept him off the field for the final two games of their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid relegation.
"Unfortunately when I first came here, I'd get off to a rhythm then I'd get an injury," the former Houston Dynamo general admits. "Injuries aren't something you can help, That's soccer - one day you're at the top and the next day you're not. I've just got to keep a positive mentality and when my chance comes I'll have to take advantage of it."
Even with these troubles and Eintracht's relegation, he has seen the overall experience in Germany beneficial, both for introducing him to a more stringent training regiment, and for allowing him to test his own abilities on a higher level of play - which he feels is still provided even at the 2. Bundesliga level.
"I like it here," he resolutely states. "The training is intense but I feel fitter because of it."
"The 2. Bundesliga is still a good league, there's still good play, still good players and you still get good crowds," the World Cup veteran continues. "It's one of the best second divisions in Europe, maybe only England is on the same level."
"I'm happy to be here, I've just got to keep plugging through and keep fighting."
While Clark made a name for himself both in MLS and on the international stage as a hard-nosed central defensive midfield player, he has been called upon to play an increasing amount of time in the team's central defense.
The position is not entirely unfamiliar to the Atlanta native and he is happy to contribute in the defense whenever needed by the team, however he does feel that his more recent experience in a more advanced position is still where he can contribute and excel the most.
"I have to say that center midfield is definitely my first choice, but playing in the back isn't something totally new to me," he discusses. "I played at the back at the youth national team level and in my early years at the MetroStars."
"It's something new now, but whatever I can do to help the team is what I want to do. If the coach needs me at center back, I play at center back, if he needs me in the midfield, I'll play midfield."
With the US national team recently showing a lack of depth in the center of defense due to a combination of injury, aging and inexperience, the question of whether Clark - who has 31 caps as a midfielder - could become a veteran option for new head coach Jürgen Klinsmann has arisen.
"I feel like I can fulfill whatever role I'm asked to on the team, center midfield, defense, or whatever it may be," he judges of the possibility of a relatively new role on the senior national team.
"If I'm called upon to do it, I'll do it," he concludes, adding wryly, "just put me on the field because I want to play."