Clarence Goodson's journey from Springfield could culminate at World Cup

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; D01

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Clarence Goodson's soccer education began in Fairfax County's schoolyards and parks and flourished in the Braddock Road Youth Club. Mom operated the video camera and dad kept statistics. His big sister attended matches when she didn't have a swim meet.

A goal rested in the back yard of their home in a Springfield subdivision and trophies stood like sentries on basement shelves. Weekdays were crammed with practices, weekends with tournaments -- a typical summer almanac for thousands of Washington area families consumed by youth soccer.

"He swam, he ran, he played basketball, he did it all," said his father, also named Clarence. "But it always came back to soccer. That was what he liked, that is what he wanted to do."

From common suburban roots sprouted an uncommon player. And on Monday, his 28th birthday, Goodson arrived at Princeton University to compete for a roster spot on the U.S. World Cup squad. Thirty players are in training camp and 23 will go to South Africa for the 32-team tournament, which begins June 11.

Even before camp opened, Goodson had a good chance of making the cut. Now, with all the other natural center backs recovering from injury or facing fitness issues, Goodson seems a likely choice when Coach Bob Bradley makes his final decisions next week.

"I have a chance," said Goodson, who has made 10 appearances with the national team and scored twice. "It's not there yet. It's obviously a goal reached being in training camp, but it's not the final goal. I haven't allowed myself to think about going yet."

Under the radar

Goodson's selection would be the culmination of a career that, in many ways, has gone by unnoticed. Despite starring for a club juggernaut, the Braddock Road Warhawks, and winning a state championship with W.T. Woodson High School, he was never selected to elite district or region squads and settled for an honorable mention All-Met award as a senior.

Unlike many of his U.S. teammates, he was never invited to any of the junior national teams. His first senior training camp came in January 2008 -- after completing his fourth season in MLS and before moving to Norwegian club IK Start.

He wasn't a complete unknown, having played three seasons at the University of Maryland, one of the NCAA's premier programs, and drafted by FC Dallas in the first round of the 2004 MLS draft.

However, "Clarence was always in the shadow of everyone and it is great now to see him pass them all," said Gene Mishalow, who coached the Warhawks for the last five years the team was together and guided them to several state titles and the under-17 national championship in 1999. "He was just a skinny kid who kept working hard." The absence of recognition puzzled Goodson.

"For whatever reason, I sort of fell through the cracks," he said. "You have a decision to make: You can decide that they are right or prove that they are wrong. I have gone about my business proving them wrong, I guess."

His father once asked him if he was bothered by being passed over. "He said, 'Well, if I keep working, people will notice,' " the elder Goodson said. "Usually the parent says something like that to the child. He taught me as much as I taught him."

Getting his kicks

Goodson's love of soccer began at age 4, when his parents signed him up for a team in Annandale. "It was the only program around us that would accept someone so young," said his mother, Jan. "But we had to get him into something because he loved to run."

As he got older, Goodson would use the house as an obstacle course. Doorframes became goals and walls served as targets. In fifth grade, Abe Thompson moved in a block away and they became inseparable. Before they were teammates at W.T. Woodson, Maryland and FC Dallas, they would find a small ball belonging to Corky, the Goodsons' Yorkshire terrier, and play one-on-one indoors.

"If we got in trouble at my house, we would go to Abe's house," Goodson said, "Nothing was off limits. We were wild men."

Ruckus aside, the boys were developing skills. Despite always being taller than his teammates and eventually reaching 6 feet 4, Goodson thrived under Joe Dougherty, the Warhawks' first coach, and later Mishalow, both of whom stressed the importance of ball control, technique and improvisation.

"I was an athlete, but I would just tackle people and wasn't the best with the ball," Goodson said. "Joe showed me that skill kills."

Later, Mishalow "taught me how to be a man and a soccer player. He taught me how to be mentally tough and strong and to work for everything."

In his development with the Warhawks, beginning at the under-9 age group, Goodson became comfortable playing anywhere on the field. For the Warhawks and W.T. Woodson, he was a playmaker and forward. In his freshman year at Maryland, he played in central midfield and had four goals and five assists.

"He was a 6-4 guy who wanted to play like a 5-9 midfielder," Terrapins Coach Sasho Cirovski said.

Hitting bottom

After a promising start at Maryland, however, Goodson nearly derailed his career by sinking into academic trouble.

"I was uninterested," he said. "I didn't focus on it and was more concerned with playing soccer and having a good time with my friends."

Goodson withdrew from Maryland and enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College for a semester.

"For the first time," his father said, "Clarence realized that this could all go away."

Goodson got his act together and, according to Cirovski, "came back hungry and humble."

He also came back to a new position: central defender. "I'd play anywhere just to get back on the field," he said.

Utilizing his height to foil aerial attacks and his polished footwork to disrupt possessions, Goodson settled into the role and started 46 matches over two seasons before turning pro with a year of eligibility remaining. At Dallas, he played sparingly his first year before becoming a regular.

Late in his fourth season in 2007, the last under his MLS contract, he began to turn his attention to Europe. Two German second-division clubs expressed interest, but IK Start offered him a three-year guaranteed contract. Though he had never heard of the team or the seaside town where it plays (Kristiansand, population 80,000) and was apprehensive about settling in the unglamorous Norwegian second tier, he signed.

"It was clearly a gamble," he said. But one that paid off. Goodson was the league's player of the year his first season and helped Start gain promotion to the first division. The team had a 10-10-10 record in 2009 and is 5-4-3 this year.

In Kristiansand, Goodson met his wife, Kelsey, an American from the Seattle area who was vacationing in Norway. When they married last year, many of the Warhawks attended the ceremony in Washington state, including goalkeeper Eric Earnhardt, the team's goalkeeper who is now a Marine captain based in Okinawa.

Goodson and his wife are devout Christians, and Clarence, an art major at Maryland, has resumed pursuit of a degree by taking religion classes online from Liberty University. A celebrity of sorts in Norway, Goodson is often invited to give personal testimony at churches and camps.

How long he will remain in Norway is unclear. In the final year of his contract, he is eyeing a move to a more prominent league, ideally the German Bundesliga. If Start doesn't sell him this summer, he will become a free agent in the winter.

A berth on the U.S. World Cup squad would enhance his value on the international market.

"We are all rooting for him," said Dougherty, the original Warhawks coach. "He's a local kid who persevered through a lot. He is a great example of how someone with some good skills and great tenacity can go far in soccer."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company