No matter the day or opponent, World Cup Qualifying in CONCACAF is a slog. Without fail, in every cycle games that look to be easy on paper prove to be anything but. The 16-game marathon has its peaks and valleys, and teams that successfully qualify must rely on contributions and moments of brilliance from players they wouldn’t always expect.
For Ricardo Clark, that moment came on Sept. 9, 2009, when he tallied the lone goal in the USA’s crucial 1-0 qualifying victory at Trinidad & Tobago. Heading into the contest, the U.S was part of a log-jam at the top of the Hex table, where the constant parity during that year’s six-team Final Round kept the top four teams separated by only one point.
- READ MORE: Five Things to Know About Trinidad & Tobago
The match came four days after Bob Bradley’s side earned a 2-1 comeback win against El Salvador, and though Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain isn’t the most daunting venue in CONCACAF, the U.S. was facing a Soca Warriors side that would be eliminated from World Cup contention with a loss.
“It was a game that fans might look past,” Clark remembered. “Of course you’re supposed to get a result against Trinidad. Of course you’re supposed to win. They were in a place where they were fighting for their lives, they were at home and they weren’t a bad team either. Take all those factors – getting a result there was much more difficult than people realize.”
Spurred by their circumstance, T&T came close twice in the first half hour, as Tim Howard made a strong stop on a Kenwyne Jones header in the 27th minute. The Soca Warriors saw their best chance go begging two minutes later, when Cornell Glen broke through the USA back line and lobbed his effort over Howard but back off the crossbar.
The U.S. had dangerous first-half chances of their own through Jozy Altidore and Landon Donovan, but as the game wore on it looked like the odd goal might not come until Clark stepped up.
Just after the hour mark, Donovan penetrated the penalty area on the left before cutting back for the midfielder outside the box. Clark took a touch to get the ball on his right foot before unleashing a blistering strike that that beat the full sprawl of Trinidad goalkeeper Clayton Ince and tucked just inside the right post.
“I figured so long as I hit it on target and with pace, I’d have a great chance for it to go in,” Clark remembered. “Thankfully it did, and it was a cool feeling to help the team move forward in that moment.
“In qualifying, everybody is just playing for the team and trying to contribute the best way they can. I’m thankful I was able to be a part of that. It’s really important for each and everybody to contribute in those moments.”
The moment was made more special because it came in the country Clark’s father Lancelot had spent much of his youth. What’s more, his dad was able to fly in and witness the match himself.
“He had traveled down to watch the game live, so it was already an important moment for me. I hadn’t been back to Trinidad since I was 12 or 13, and just to go back there with the National Team with my dad there in the stands was something I’ll never forget.
The goal was just the second of Clark’s international career and put the U.S. on the cusp of qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A month later, the team secured its place in South Africa by earning another away victory, this time a 3-2 win in Honduras.
Like Clark on that humid night in Port-of-Spain, the U.S. utilized a brace from Conor Casey to earn the away victory in San Pedro Sula. The goals stood as Casey’s only two international strikes, and represent another clear example of how offerings from a variety of different players are key to a successful qualifying campaign.
“You’re going to need contributions from everybody,” Clark said. “Maybe that’s somebody who hasn’t played as much or doesn’t always score goals. Maybe it’s someone coming for their first cap. It’s a long, lengthy process, and it’s a lot more difficult than people think. When you go away where the circumstances aren’t ideal and sometimes it’s a hostile environment, it’s really difficult. Not everyone is going to have their best game, not everyone is at 100 percent so you’re going to need to grind out games at times and wait for that special moment for somebody to contribute.”