Clarence Goodson has spent most of his soccer career in the shadows.
At Maryland, where Goodson helped lead the Terps to two straight national semifinal appearances in 2002 and 2003, he was often upstaged by his oldest friend and former Northern Virginia high school teammate, Abe Thompson.
For much of his 10-year professional career, Goodson has been considered a solid, steady defender, but has toiled mostly in the obscurity of Norway (IK Start) and Denmark (Brondby) after starting out in Major League Soccer.
Now 31 and about to return to MLS, the San Jose Earthquakes, Goodson sees the shadows finally starting to lift. The 6-foot-4 defender has emerged as a key player on the U.S. National Team gearing up for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
When the U.S. team plays at M&T Bank Stadium for its quarterfinal game in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament Sunday, Goodson is likely to be in the starting lineup at central defense — a position he first played as a sophomore in College Park.
It took a few years after he left Maryland before his senior year for Goodson to get in the mix for the U.S. team.
"The position is one that players tend to come into their own in their late 20s and early 30s," Goodson said last week. "You can see that with Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Jimmy Conrad.
It seems like there's always been a long line of guys that have been ahead of me and before me and I've been able to learn from. It seems like those guys have moved on, and I've been able to move up."
Whether Goodson remains on the team depends a lot on his performance in the Gold Cup and a deepening pool of talent coach Jurgen Klinsmann has to choose from on defense.
Former starter Oguchi Onyewu is back in the mix after a serious knee injury in 2009 threatened his career. Onyewu, who grew up in Olney, started Saturday's 4-1 win over Cuba with Goodson resting. Goodson is expected back in the lineup Tuesday against Costa Rica in Hartford, Conn.
Omar Gonzalez, another former Terp, played in the World Cup qualifiers earlier this year and could be Goodson's main competition next summer. Gonzalez is not on the Gold Cup roster but is considered one of the top defenders in MLS.
"The Gold Cup is very important both for [Onyewu] and for Clarence Goodson to show Jurgen Klinsmann that they can have success, and I'm talking about when you get down to the nitty gritty and the end of the tournament, which we expect the U.S. to be in, and playing well against the likes of Mexico," former U.S. defender and current ESPN analyst Alexis Lalas recently told Football News.
Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski isn't surprised that Goodson has stuck with the national team the past few years and has gradually worked his way into the starting lineup for the Gold Cup.
"He's a guy that coaches love to have around," Cirovski said. "He's a big guy who's good in the air and has got great feet. He reads the game very well. He's a great team guy, a great locker room guy. He's not even low maintenance — he's no maintenance. He's now played for two [national team] coaches so he's a guy that they value. He's not going to do anything to lose you a game. He's Mr. Reliable right now."
Cirovski sees a similar evolution in Goodson that he did a decade ago in College Park.
"I think the key word with Clarence is maturity," Cirovski said. "He played on a club team in high school that he was in the shadows of three or four guys who had pretty good college and pro careers. The first year for me he was a striker and he had a solid year, but he wasn't serious about anything, soccer or academics. He was just being a typical college kid having a good time."
After flunking out and spending a year at a local junior college, Goodson returned to Maryland more focused. Hoping to find a place on the field for Goodson, Cirovski moved him to center back because of an injury to one of his regulars. Goodson's first game was a preseason friendly against D.C. United.
"He had a great game and we just kept him at center back and he became one of the most dominant center backs in the country," Cirovski recalled.
Away from the national team, Goodson's professional career is moving in a different direction, at least geographically. After spending several years in Europe — eventually winding up as the captain of Brondby in Denmark — Goodson recently signed to play for the Earthquakes.
Goodson had started his professional career with the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) after initially being drafted in 2004, but he chose to go to Europe after the Earthquakes selected him in the 2007 MLS Expansion Draft.
"I've always tried to do my best, give it everything I have," Goodson said. "As a professional athlete, you always want to find your highest level, wherever that is. You want to continue to climb and get better and improve as an athlete and play for the best team you can, for the most elite team, in the best leagues."
In the past, Goodson has faced criticism among those assessing the U.S. national team because of his lack of soccer pedigree. He is aware that a player's club affiliation is often viewed to measure his skills.
"There's only so many people that can grow up playing for Manchester United or Barcelona or Real Madrid or these different teams," Goodson said. "If you haven't done that, you're always trying to get to the next level. That's the majority of professionals. For me, it was always trying to chase the next thing or improve as a player and just trying to find the top level that I can reach."