World Cup Qualifying: Central Casting

U.S. head coach Bob Bradley has several candidates to fill the central midfield positions for the Hexagonal. He's earned only 16 caps since debuting for the national team in 2005 yet Houston Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark could be a major player.
It took only a few seconds for the career and reputation of Ricardo Clark to take a punishing hit, invoking a savage image that is slowly fading with time yet will never disappear.

A vicious kick to the shoulder of a prostrate Carlos Ruiz, who had predictably flopped to the ground while battling for a ball, sent Clark to the sidelines for nine games, the longest suspension ever handed out by MLS for a game-related incident. Clark missed the final weeks of the 2007 season, including the Dynamo's second straight MLS Cup triumph, and the start of the 2008 campaign.

"You can't rely on the refs, which I learned in MLS with the Carlos Ruiz situation," says Clark, who faces a busy 2009 playing central midfield for Houston and the U.S. national team. "I also learned about how to get back at a player and when to get back at a player. I regret the way I retaliated, the way I reacted, but at the same time I am standing up for myself, and you have to stand up for yourself out there. I can only take so much."

He also heard from his dad, Lance, who had coached him until he was 13.

"He said the typical things a dad would say," recalls Clark, chuckling. "At first, he was pretty heated at me, but he did kind of calm down when he found out both sides of the story and the stuff that went on that you don't see on the cameras."

The suspension coincided with the final U.S. game that year, an exhibition against the 2010 World Cup host in Johannesburg. Instead, Clark used the time to recover from minor ankle surgery, and ponder the eventual cost of his reaction to being elbowed and kicked throughout the match by Ruiz — and then deliberately kneed in the back — to which he reacted so violently.

"I have nothing against Carlos Ruiz," says Clark of the Guatemalan goalscorer who was released by Toronto last November. "What goes on on the field stays on the field and you just move on. It's a lot different than what you perceive on camera.

"There's more to it than most people think, especially with the national team. There's a lot that goes on off the ball that contributes heavily to the team's success, like cutting off passing lanes, and just making sure you're in the right position going forward and defending. Just making your team hard to play against can take you a long way."

Clark is one of numerous central midfielders U.S. coach Bob Bradley will watch closely this year. Established veteran Pablo Mastroeni is vying to play in a third World Cup, Michael Bradley is playing regularly in the German Bundesliga, Maurice Edu is a remarkable athlete stuck on the bench at Glasgow Rangers, and young Mexican league veteran Jose Francisco Torres debuted for the U.S. in 2008. Sacha Kljestan played at the Olympics as well as with the senior national team, as did Stuart Holden and Danny Szetela,

Kljestan, and others, could also play out wide, but most of those players are best suited to the center. A heavy schedule – 10 Hexagonal matches, at least three games apiece at the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup – this year is certain to affect Bob Bradley's choices. Not yet publicly acknowledged is U.S. Soccer's plan to send its strongest squad, including most of the European-based players, to the Confederations Cup in June, and use a mostly MLS team the following month for the Gold Cup.

Clark might miss out again on a test run to South Africa, though he was one of five players named to both the Gold Cup and Copa America squads in 2007. After starting one game and making three appearances as a sub in the 2007 Gold Cup, he started all three Copa America matches and scored his first senior U.S. goal against Paraguay.

"I was just reacting to the situation," recalls Clark. "Taylor Twellman was just inside the 18 and I wanted to give him some support. I started running off him and he laid the ball back and I shot it low. I wanted to make sure I kept it low and on frame, and that's what I did."

Setting aside the case of Michael Bradley's nose for goal, Bob Bradley doesn't depend on his central mids for scoring. That could change if he decides to deploy Landon Donovan in the middle, but unless Donovan or someone else – whatever happened to Benny Feilhaber, anyway? — blossoms between now and the World Cup into a dominant attacking midfielder who can play in the middle, and Bob Bradley can make the other pieces fit, he will opt for two-way players capable of attacking yet reliable in their own half of the field.

"In center midfield, he wants us to be disciplined and know when to exert your energy, and when not to," says Clark of the coach, who brought him back to the national team early last year and handed him six matches, including five starts. "A big part of it is knowing the players around you so that you're always on the same page. That goes a long way, especially when you play against the better teams."

The tricky corollary to that edict is the central midfield mix has been constantly shifting the past two years and will continue to do so in 2009, so Clark and his mates must be adept at adapting. He'll also take on different responsibilities for the Dynamo, which has traded talismanic attacker Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto.

"We are trying to expand his game in terms of range, but also trying to get him to simplify his game," says U.S. assistant coach Peter Nowak, himself a central midfielder of some repute. "Because Rico plays as a single defensive midfielder at his club, he has different responsibilities playing behind a guy like Dwayne De Rosario. He must cover a lot of ground alone defensively, and in some cases he is everywhere and nowhere. At the club level, this works pretty well. At the international level, we are trying to let him see more things at once and predict some plays even before those plays happen. Since 2007, he has made steady progress, and we know there is a lot more potential."

Of the center mids, Michael Bradley played the most games with 11 appearances in 2008. After two and a half seasons in Holland with Heerenveen, the Dutch club transferred him to Bundesliga club Borussia Moenchengladbach, which ended the first half of the season mired last among the 18 clubs. Bradley played 11 of the 17 games, starting nine, and scored one goal.

"The desire to play in harder games every week was there," said Bradley of his son's move to Germany. "Most of the games in terms of tempo and the physical challenges are what he was looking for. They're a team that's going to have to fight for every point all year. With that, there's pressure, which is part of growing as a player. With it at times there comes turmoil. They've changed coaches once, so there's some issues there. All you can do is remind him is that in the business you're in, you find a way, which in most cases means you keep your mouth shut and try to prove yourself every day."

Though in his fifth year as a pro, Bradley is just 21. Edu, Holden, Torres and Kljestan are slightly older. Mastroeni is the elder statesman at 33, yet even Clark, who turns 26 this year, is feeling the presence of youth, relatively speaking. At the January training camp, along with Holden and Kljestan were midfielders Robbie Rogers (21), Eddie Gaven (22) and Geoff Cameron (23).

"When you're younger, you attribute more credit to your athletic ability," says Clark, whose blistering pace and vast range occasionally leave him stranded out of position, which is tantamount to treason on the national team. "I don't know if I want to say if I'm old or not, but it makes it harder to make that judgment with all these younger players. It seems like everybody's getting younger and younger.

"At any age, you need to develop that soccer sense. That can only help you in the future, especially with the national team. I'm always learning, I'm always trying to improve as a player, and trying to be wiser on the field. I want to let my brains take over, and find that balance between my athleticism, and my soccer knowledge."

HOUSTON DYNAMICS. Clark, Cameron and Holden will shoulder greater responsibilities for the Dynamo in the wake of De Rosario's departure, which can only help their national team aspirations.

Holden will take De Rosario's spot in the lineup, but nobody on the team – and precious few players in MLS – can hope to imitate his quirky bursts of brilliance, not to mention his celebratory strut of marionette movements. If unorthodoxy is art, DeRo is the artist extreme.

After four seasons of buttressing De Rosario's jabs and thrusts upfield, Clark looks forward to the stiff challenge of neutralizing him in club play and perhaps even at the national team level the next time the USA meets Canada. That's an exhausting and exhilarating assignment.

"Yeah, man, it will definitely be a task when we go up to Toronto and hopefully try and contain him," says Clark. "It's going to be different and kind of weird, but I'm thankful for the opportunity to play with him throughout my career. You'd never know what to expect with Dwayne. He was on another level. He's definitely a unique dude and that reflects in his game."

In addition to the creativity and determination with which De Rosario plays, Clark respects one of the elements common to both their games. The battle to control midfield often dictates the result, and at the national team level, mistakes are costly, as the U.S. found out while losing 1-3, 1-4, and 0-1 at the 2007 Copa America. It wasn't overrun but its errors when put under pressure were punished.

"You have to have an engine, because the game never stops in midfield," Clarks says of the central midfield role. "You're always covering, making runs, battling offensively and defensively. You have to have the right mentality to be successful in that position. You have to play as the game dictates. That's pretty much the way it goes every game with every team."

(This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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