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Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin draws rave reviews in return to starting lineup

Jose Mari will deservedly garner most of the headlines for his two golazos that lifted the Colorado Rapids to a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps yesterday at BC Place. But without Clint Irwin’s heroics, Jose Mari might not have even had a chance to be a hero on Saturday.

The Rapids ‘keeper, making his season debut, produced six saves, including several highlight-reel stops to keep Colorado alive and Vancouver off the scoreboard until the 67th minute. Irwin’s biggest stop came just a minute after Darren Mattocks’ opener, when the second-year MLS goalie stuffed Pedro Morales on a 3-on-1 break to keep the game within reach.

“It was just one you try to make yourself as big as possible and come up with a save,” Irwin said postgame of that stop. “At one-nil you’re thinking, ‘two-nil is going to be difficult to come back from’, and I was just trying to keep us in the game.”

Irwin not only made several big, timely saves, he helped cover up errors from the makeshift back line in front of him. With regular center back Marvell Wynne out due to suspension and left back Chris Klute out with injury, the Rapids had newly-signed Thomas Piermayr starting at right back and Shane O’Neill made his season debut at center back. The Rapids looked uncomfortable defensively at times, particularly in the first half. But, the Elon College (N.C.) product masked the defensive shakiness with several key stops in the first half, most notably a 36th minute stop on Mattocks at point-blank range to keep things scoreless.

After missing the first two games of the season due to injury, rookie backup John Berner, who allowed just one goal in the first two games of the season, earned the start again in the Rapids’ 3-2 loss to Sporting Kansas City last week. But after Irwin’s spectacular season debut on Saturday, it doesn’t appear that, barring injury, the Charlotte native will be out of the lineup any time soon.

“It felt great,” said Irwin, who received a contract extension just last week. “I’ve played a couple reserve games but you know it’s different when you come on the road in front of 20,000 people. Felt good to be back out there and just get back into the rhythm.”

Irwin’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. After the match, Jose Mari tweeted at Irwin: “for my [sic] you are The man of The match, congrats!!!”. And clearly, Irwin’s efforts didn’t escape the mind of Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni, who was full of praise for the 25-year-old postgame.

“I think Clint had a few huge saves in that game, but more importantly I think he brings a lot of confidence to that back line. His presence, his ability to communicate, his distribution today was excellent as well,” Mastroeni said postgame on Saturday. “Just a class goalkeeper, and another pillar that we’re looking to build on. I think tonight he showed his worth and really deserves everything that the game gave him for his performance and keeping us in the game at the right times.”

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.