Irwin, a 26-year-old native of Charlotte, spent the past three seasons in Colorado where he won an all-star nomination in 2015, further establishing himself as an up-and-coming goalkeeper in MLS. But it wasn’t that long ago he was fresh out of college and toiling in the relative obscurity of the semi-professional Canadian Soccer League with Ottawa-based Capital City FC.
Undrafted after playing at North Carolina’s Elon University, Irwin made his way to the Canadian capital in 2011. The six-foot-three-inch shot-stopper only spent a year in Ottawa before the club folded after its one season in the CSL. From there, Irwin joined his hometown Charlotte Eagles in the third-tier United Soccer League before eventually graduating to MLS in 2013 when he caught on with the Rapids.
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Even though his tenure with Capital City was brief, Irwin described his time in Ottawa as a pivotal stop in his career and crucial to his development as a player and a person.
“The [CSL] is a league that gave me the first opportunity to play and I’ll always be thankful for that,” Irwin said during a Tuesday conference call with local reporters.
“Without [Capital City] I probably wouldn’t be there. My career would be over; I didn’t have anywhere else to play.
“There were some tough times, as there are in most minor-league sports. But I’m thankful that they helped me to continue my career and gave me that first step to reach where I wanted to go.”
Indeed, times were tough in Ottawa. He was young, he wasn’t making much money and he was playing in front of sparse crowds. Still, it taught him important life lessons: the value of hard work and perseverance.
“There were times when [I thought], ‘Wow, I’m playing out on some field in London, Ontario, and there are 10 people watching the game—how am I ever going to make it to MLS?’ A couple years later [I’m] playing in front of 40,000 people in Seattle,” Irwin explained.
“It was a little surreal at the time and it grounds you and it was one of those experiences that I will always remember. You remember where you come from and where you’re trying to go.”
Was there ever a time either in Ottawa or Charlotte when he thought about quitting or lost faith?
“I was always confident in my ability; what I wasn’t necessarily confident in was whether I would get a chance, whether I would be seen. Over the last (few) years the scouting has gotten a lot better in North America. At the time, it was hard to break in. I was going to open tryouts and trials, and just trying to get seen,” Irwin explained.
Irwin essentially doubled down on trying to become a professional soccer player when other options presented themselves.
“After my [one season in Charlotte] I had a good job opportunity off the field and it really came to a head as to whether I wanted to keep going. At the time I didn’t have much of a career in soccer to look forward to. I didn’t have a team or any opportunities, but I ended up quitting my part-time job and pursuing soccer full time not knowing what was out there,” Irwin said.
“I wanted to do it and see how far I could go without a backup plan to lean on. I got a call put of the blue from the Rapids to come into pre-season as a trialist and I ended up signing there.”
Toronto has been without a veteran goalkeeper since December when it did not pick up the options on Chris Konopka and Joe Bendik, who was later traded to Orlando City. Young ’keepers Alex Bono and Quillan Roberts spent last season with TFC 2, the club’s USL affiliate, but neither is considered ready to start in MLS.
So it hardly came as a surprise that the Reds made a move to sign a goalkeeper with experience. That said, Irwin didn’t see the trade coming.
“I spoke with Colorado at the end of [last] season and there was no real indication that anything was going to happen. I certainly didn’t ask [to be dealt]. It comes as somewhat of a surprise… It’s just the life of an MLS player,” Irwin conceded.
TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko feels Irwin can become one of the best goalkeepers in MLS and a consistent league all-star.
“He knows the league and we feel like it’s the last remaining piece of the puzzle to take [us] from being just an MLS playoff-qualifying club to a contender,” Bezbatchenko stated.
Last season, the Reds conceded a whopping 58 goals, tied for the worst defensive record in MLS. Bendik started the season as the club’s starter before being replaced as the No. 1 by Konopka. Neither one particularly impressed.
“Something was off last year collectively as a unit.… We felt we needed to make a change and have a fresh start [at goalkeeper],” Bezbatchenko said.
“We think it’s an upgrade because we feel like the chemistry wasn’t quite there last year and [we think] Clint is the right person to man the job for us.”
Bezbatchenko added he expects Bono and Roberts to battle it out for the backup goalkeeper position this season.