PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago -- Playing time on the U.S. national team is precious. Just ask Ricardo Clark.
So in a grand act of self-preservation, both for himself and the U.S. team, Clark rocketed a bending, 25-yard shot into the back of the T&T net to give the Americans a 1-0 victory and propel the squad into first place in the CONCACAF standings.
His goal in the 62nd minute off a nice feed from Landon Donovan stunned the small crowd at Hasely Crawford Stadium, and turned what could have been a huge disappointment for the U.S. into a night of relief and triumph.
"Throughout the whole game, Landon had been going down the line, and that cutback was on," Clark said of Donovan's assist, which found the midfielder steaming down the middle, trailing Donovan's run down the sideline. "Landon spotted me, and it was good timing and I let it rip."
Good timing is right. As Clark's strike hit the twine, Stuart Holden stood on the sidelines alongside Benny Feilhaber, ready to replace Clark. "I didn't know at the time," Clark said, "but when the substitution came after the goal, I had a feeling that that was supposed to be me."
After the score, coach Bob Bradley elected to keep Clark on the field for the rest of the match, completing a magical day for the Houston Dynamo star. His father, Lance Clark, was born in Trinidad, and flew down from Atlanta to see his son's game-winner. "This is special, to score a goal with him watching," Clark said. "He's such a big part of my life, a big part of my soccer career, and it's such a blessing to score in front of him."
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That Clark was the hero was something of a shock, given his absence from the lineup against El Salvador in Salt Lake City. But Bradley was thinking long-term. "We came into these two games trying to have an idea of how to map out both games," Bradley said. "Ricardo has played a lot of games lately for Houston. We felt that by resting him for the first game, and bringing him back for this game, that his energy, combined with a little bit of rest, would help us, knowing the kind of game that we would have against Trinidad."
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Clark wasn't exactly happy about having to sit Saturday. "Everybody wants to play," Clark said. "I want to play every single game, be a part of every single game, but it's one of those things where you have to accept it and move on and make the most of your opportunity the next time you get it. And I did."
Asked if Bradley's prescription for rest left his legs fresher, he admitted, "I did feel good. I felt great. I guess it did work."
His right foot definitely looked fresh on his long-distance strike, the kind of shot the strong-legged Clark seeks out, but the U.S. team rarely finds. "Today, once it left my foot -- I think every soccer player knows this feeling -- it just felt good," he said. "I was just trying to stay over it, hit it on frame, hit it as hard as I can. I think that's a big part of my game, and once I saw it going in, I was happy."
So was the rest of the U.S. squad, which had struggled with a surprisingly frisky T&T team that moved several men forward and would have had a two-goal lead in the first half but for a spectacular Tim Howard save and a shot that hit the U.S. crossbar.
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Even Holden, whose entry into the match was delayed to 20 minutes 'til the 82nd minute because of Clark's heroics, loved the sight of Clark's blast. "Rico's known for his long-range shots, and he hit a great shot and brought a lot of energy the rest of the game," Holden said. "You want to play, but first and foremost it's important that the team wins. It was a great goal, and a well-timed goal. The tension was starting to mount a little bit and it kinda relieved that tension and allowed us to kill it off."
Holden did get a chance to kill time in the final moments as the better-conditioned American squad played keep-away for the final third of the match. Now, with a lead in the standings headed into next month's final two matches -- one at Honduras and the other in Washington, D.C., against Costa Rica -- the Yanks are well positioned to earn a trip to next year's World Cup in South Africa. A draw in either of their next two matches likely assures them a spot in next year's tournament.
And the result even had Clark agreeing, sort of, with his coach's decision to sit him in the last game. "It was a strategic thing," Clark said. "Because of the card situation, he wanted to rest me as well as make sure I was available for this game. It proved to be huge."
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.