Colorado Rapids brace for goalkeeping battle as Matt Pickens returns to challenge Clint Irwin

Matt Pickens

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – It’s almost decision for the Colorado Rapids.

When goakeeper Matt Pickens broke his forearm in March against Real Salt Lake, nobody foresaw Clint Irwin’s meteoric rise from third-string ‘keeper to All-Star candidate. But since Irwin has established himself as one of the league’s top young goalkeepers in three short months, the pressing question came more clearly into focus on Wednesday morning.

Irwin or Pickens?

The 31-year-old Pickens returned to full training on Wednesday for the first time since breaking his left forearm in a collision with RSL's Kwame Watson-Siriboe on March 16, and the team has him on track to start in a friendly against Mexican side Santos Laguna on July 12, a little more than two weeks away.

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So with crunch time nearing, head coach Oscar Pareja voluntarily addressed the looming question between the posts on Wednesday.

“[Matt] is now in a position that has been challenged by Clint,” said Pareja, while adding, contrary to speculation, that he doesn’t anticipate moving either player. “It was very healthy for the club to have him in the goal today and ready to step in.”

Pickens spent Wednesday’s practice session testing out his wrist fully for the first time, and he said he came away feeling 100 percent and even said that he could play this weekend if he needed to.

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“I’m 100 percent, and that shows it right there when you’re full out there training,” Pickens said. “But I’ve still got to go out there and get the reps, and that’s something I’m looking forward to do.”

But now, the question comes down to who will play once Pickens is fully game-ready. Will it be Irwin, the 24-year-old feel-good story who won a preseason battle to become the third-string ‘keeper and rocketed up the depth chart, or Pickens, the team’s longest-tenured player who’s started 116 games since his January 2009 acquisition?

Pareja doesn’t have an answer yet, but he said he’d let the better man in practice over the next few weeks dictate who starts on Saturdays.

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“Clint has to keep his high standards, and keep playing the way he has. That’s the way he handles himself,” Pareja said. “And Matt is going to need to show in training, too, and the games that we can set up that he’s ahead now, because we need to see where is Matt. We all have the memory of Matt, but we have to evaluate where he [is] at.”

So how does Pareja keep the loser of the goalkeeper battle happy? The simple answer is he doesn’t.

“It’s an impossible task,” Pareja said. “I really think there’s 11 players happy on this team. The ones who played last game.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.