COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — If you had asked Clint Irwin a year ago if he thought he’d be the Colorado Rapids’ starting goalkeeper now, he would’ve called you crazy.
You know the Disney movie-like tale by now. Irwin nearly took a full-time job last year at a startup company after years of wading through the lower rungs of professional soccer in both the US and Canada. He recently said he was about “90 percent” sure at the time that his professional soccer career was over and he considered a preseason trial with the Rapids this year as his possible last shot to make it.
But now, the 24-year-old North Carolina native is seemingly entrenched as the No. 1 'keeper, having started Colorado’s last 25 MLS matches and impressing in the process.
Amongst keepers who have started 10 or more games this season, his 1.00 goals-against average is tied (with RSL’s Nick Rimando) for second in MLS. On Saturday night, the Elon College (N.C.) graduate tied a franchise record with his 10th shutout of the season in the Rapids’ 1-0 win over the Galaxy on Saturday night. Veteran goalkeeper Matt Pickens, whose broken forearm suffered in March first allowed Irwin a chance into the starting lineup, has been forced to accept a bench role as a result of his replacement's dazzling play.
But now that he’s grown into life in MLS, Irwin’s ambitions have grown with it. With regular minutes in the MLS spotlight, different doors have opened and once dormant dreams are now a distinct possibility.
“I think every kid wants to play for the national team, they want to lift the World Cup for their national team and they want to play professionally,” Irwin told MLSsoccer.com. “My dreams were kind of along those lines. It’s got to be a goal for everyone who’s playing. But at the same time I realize that where I am now is not quite at that level, so I have to work to get there.”
There might be no better voice to describe Irwin’s potential than veteran Rapids goalkeeper coach Dave Dir, who coached Dallas for five years and served as a US Under-20 national team assistant coach for nearly a decade until 2011.
“For him, I’d be lying to say that I wouldn’t want the ceiling to be the national team and that level of games,” Dir told MLSsoccer.com. “I think the big thing is he continues to grow every year.
"I’ve had a lot of really good 'keepers, I’ve been really fortunate in that way, from the Mark Dodds of the world through the league and Matt Jordan and some very good 'keepers, and they were also in the national team pools back then, and I’ve had a lot of U-20s who became national team 'keepers. I think he definitely has those attributes, and now, it’s a question of him continuing to grow as a player.”
The thing that sticks out about Irwin is his confidence. You’d be hard pressed to watch 10 minutes of a Rapids game go by without seeing the first-year MLS 'keeper barking orders at his back line (including team captain Drew Moor), his midfielders, or anyone willing, or not willing, to listen. It’s what stuck out to Dir and the Colorado coaching staff when the unknown commodity first showed up at preseason training back in January and the club wants to see more of it.
“Managing the games, for example, comes with games. It comes with consistency,” Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja told MLSsoccer.com about Irwin. “It comes with matureness. It comes with failure and wins and losses. It’s nothing that you can get around the corner. It’s what it is, but I think he’s showing everyone in the league that he’s maturing.”
Irwin, by his own admission, still has plenty of room for growth and says he’s not at the national team level yet. Dir agrees, saying simply that Irwin needs more experience. But while both might be eye-for-eye that Irwin needs more experience at the MLS level, they’re also in agreement that with added time in goal, the sky is the limit for the man who was plying his trade in the Canadian third division just two years ago.
“I say he hasn’t really reached the ceiling yet and now with the experience and managing the games and all that kind of stuff, the more games that you get, the better you get,” Dir said. “He has really good training habits. So as long as he doesn’t falter at that, he’s got a really high end.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.