You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so they say. An adage that can safely be dispensed with in the case of Ricardo Clark. The US international may look shy and almost timid off the pitch, but on it he can be as fearsome and battle-hardened as they come.
Only when you recognise the 27-year-old's hidden traits do you begin to appreciate his true worth - a measure that could equally be applied to the Stars and Stripes. Clark and the US boys have been seen in a different light since abandoning their cautious approach at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, where they caused a sensation by finishing runners-up.
A new era
"The tournament in South Africa put us on the football map. I think people are taking much more notice of us now," Clark told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview at the training complex of German club Eintracht Frankfurt, whom he joined six months ago. "We had a disappointing World Cup in 2006, so I think the Confed Cup gave us our confidence back and opened doors for soccer and lots of people."
People say we've been handed an easy group in England, Algeria and Slovenia, but there are no easy groups at the World Cup.
Not least for himself, he might have added. The defensive midfielder played a pivotal role in helping Bob Bradley's side progress all the way to the final, where they fell to a narrow 3-2 defeat against five-time world champions Brazil. Clark featured in four of the five matches, bringing his trademark dynamism to his team's play. Frankfurt saw enough to bring him in on a short-term deal, before several good performances at the back end of the current Bundesliga season earned the lightning-quick, tough-tackling player a contract until the summer of 2013.
A rocky road
Clark, who has Caribbean roots but was born in Atlanta, has every reason to look forward with confidence to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. But while he knows how to impress in South Africa, he is keen to keep a lid on the expectations surrounding the US team. "I don't think we're on a par with the really big sides yet," he said. "Soccer is still growing in America. We still have a job to do and that's what we'll be focusing on over the next few weeks."
The two-time MLS Cup winner (2006 and 2007 with Houston Dynamo) has learned to do his talking on the pitch. "It's been a rocky road getting here," he said, glancing across to the Frankfurt stadium. "I've become a better player at Eintracht and I think that can help us at the World Cup. I can read the game well, especially from holding midfield, and I can also score goals." Clark spent a long time on the bench in Frankfurt before being handed his chance. Eventually, however, he was rewarded for his patience.
Growing maturity and big dreams
It is this coming of age that makes the USA stronger than ever in the run-up to South Africa 2010. After their successes at the Confederations Cup 12 months ago Bradley's squad understand that hard work eventually pays dividends. "People say we've been handed an easy group in England, Algeria and Slovenia, but there are no easy groups at the World Cup," said Clark before uttering one of those phrases that typifies the American mentality: "Every game will be a challenge, but we can do it!"
There is no doubt about it, the USA will embark on their second flight to South Africa in a year determined to make history. In view of the results achieved on their last visit and the attention these generated, there has never been a better opportunity to move the game forward sustainably in the United States. "Taking part in a World Cup is something you dream about as a child. I still remember how fascinated I was as a boy to see a look back at Brazil's great triumph in 1970," Clark said.
For the future of the game in the USA, Clark and Co would love to leave a similar impression at the game’s showpiece event next month.