Strong sides are invariably built around tireless and determined workers, often a gritty spine straight through the middle of the pitch. In the current USA team, it's the likes of Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore who grab the majority of the headlines, but there is a core of workmen, dedicated and competent grafters, who do most of the dirty work. Among them is Ricardo Clark, and FIFA.com recently caught up with the holding midfielder for an exclusive chat.
A product of the US national youth system, the Atlanta-born player earned his first cap at senior level in 2005, rising to prominence this June at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. "For me personally and for the team we learned a lot at the Confederations Cup," explained the rangy Clark, whose acrobatic tackles and work-rate helped USA upset the mighty Spain in the semi-finals.
"We were up 2-0 on Brazil [in the final] but we just couldn't hang on. If we end up in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, we'll know how to close out the game against a big opponent. We won't get caught again."
Since starting four of USA's five games at South Africa 2009 [missing one through suspension for a red card], Clark has become a virtual ever-present in the central holding role for Bob Bradley's side. In their last 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago - his parents' birth nation - the 26-year-old stepped out of the role of quiet grafter and wandered directly into the spotlight. His swerving strike in the 61st minute sealed a 1-0 American win, settling nerves in the team after an unconvincing performance and sending T&T out of contention.
"It was a good feeling, I was pretty pumped up," shyly admitted Clark, currently with Major League Soccer outfit Houston Dynamo, and clearly uncomfortable with too much attention. "We needed a goal and although I'm not usually the guy to get them [Clark has just three in his 27 caps] I was thrilled. We needed those points. The last thing we want is to end up in fourth place and facing a play-off with a South American team. Every point counts and South Africa is the goal."
Tight at the top
Only four points separate the top four teams in the final hexagonal round in CONCACAF. The US are currently in first, one point ahead of Mexico, and a win in third-placed Honduras on 10 October would guarantee a place in South Africa with a game still to play. However, Los Catrachos have been in fine form of late and pose a stern test at home in San Pedro Sula. A victory, coupled with a Costa Rica loss, would put them through.
"Honduras's are loaded with talent," said Clark ahead of the game, the USA's fourth meeting with Honduras this year. "Last time we played [a 2-1 win in Chicago in June] they punished us on the counter-attack, going up a goal early. They are ferocious at home. It's a huge match for us and a huge match for them. A point wouldn't be the end of the world but we'll be pushing to the get the result. We want to book our place at the World Cup as early as possible."
Clark, soft-spoken and direct, represents the generation raised in the USA's 16-year-old top flight, Major League Soccer. Starting in New York, he moved to San Jose Earthquakes, which later became Houston Dynamo. In Texas he went on to dominate the midfield, winning back-to-back league titles in 2006 and 2007.
Of the 22 players named for the final two USA qualifiers, Clark is just one of eight based Stateside. "The league [MLS] has made soccer in the States more competitive," he said, his Dynamo side currently hunting a play-off spot in second place in the Western Conference. "It's more like it is overseas now." for Clark, the appeal of the greatest show on earth - the FIFA World Cup - is a dream he is desperate to realise. "I've never played in one and I can't even describe how badly I want it," he said.
Clark, who admits to wanting a move overseas when his contract runs out in MLS next year, is quick to dismiss assertions that the Americans are not firing on all cylinders in recent performances. "You have to consider the circumstances," he insisted.
"Against Mexico we were playing at the Azteca, which is one of the toughest places in the world, and we were unlucky not to get a point out of it. Then against Trinidad, we did the job and got the points, even if it wasn't the strongest showing."
Clearly not one to get bogged down with chat, Clark prefers to let the ball do the talking just three points away from booking passage to South Africa 2010: "Getting the points is most important. We'll be happy with that. You'll always be criticised for something."