COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Of all of Pablo Mastroeni’s decisions in his first year as the Colorado Rapids’ head coach, perhaps none have been as confounding as his recent goalkeeping rotation, which has seen all three Colorado netminders start within the last four matches.
And Mastroeni threw another wrench into the mass confusion on Sunday.
Signed to a new contract at the start of the season, 25-year-old Clint Irwin appeared to be the Rapids’ man of the future after a terrific 2013 – a debut season so impressive that the club traded longtime starter Matt Pickens to clear room for the former Elon University standout.
But after a five-game losing streak highlighted by leaky defending, backup Joe Nasco received his MLS start on August 30, with Mastroeni at the time citing a desire to give Irwin a mental break after picking the ball out of his own net so many times, and noting the more vocal presence of the 30-year-old Nasco.
In a 6-0 loss at the LA Galaxy the following week, Nasco received a first-minute red card and an automatic suspension, leading to the belief that Irwin would be back in net for a Sept. 13 clash against the Portland Timbers.
But it was rookie John Berner who instead got the call against Portland. The next week, in a 5-1 blowout loss at Real Salt Lake on Sept. 19, Nasco retained his spot in goal, only to commit two errors that led to two of the five RSL goals.
Nasco kept his spot in the lineup the following week and rebounded with a solid performance in a 1-1 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes on Sept. 27.
Then this past Sunday, Mastroeni chose to put Irwin back in net for a 4-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders.
So what exactly is going on?
“The moment that I felt, and [goalkeeper coach] Chris Sharpe felt, that [Irwin’s] performance day in and day out in training was at a certain level – like we said at the beginning – he’ll get another opportunity,” Mastroeni said of Irwin after Sunday’s loss. “He comes into a game, and it’s a difficult game and we asked him to make a lot of big saves.
“He came up with a few, but we find ourselves in this conundrum. For me, Clint has proven that he’s more than capable of being that stalwart in goal.”
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Meanwhile, Irwin said he wasn’t given a specific reason for the timing of his return by the coaching staff.
“They just said, ‘You're in the starting XI, get ready to play,’ and that's what I did,” Irwin said postgame on Sunday.
Irwin came up with several fine stops on Sunday, including a Save of the Week candidate for his terrific second-half fingertip save on Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso. Whether that performance is enough to earn him another start over the season’s final three matches is anyone’s guess, but Irwin said on Sunday he was simply happy to be back in the lineup, despite the lopsided result.
“I was happy to be back out there. Unfortunately, the result wasn't in our favor. That's kind of been the story for the last however many games,” Irwin said. “It's good to be back out there, I wish it could have been a win but we just have to get ready for the next game. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.