TFC’s Irwin: Basketball’s loss was soccer’s gain

Clint Irwin. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

TORONTO—It hardly comes as a surprise that Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin played basketball as a kid when you consider he’s from North Carolina.

Recently acquired by the Reds in a trade, Irwin was born and raised in one of the biggest basketball hotbeds in the United States. Growing up in Charlotte, Irwin played soccer, but he was also a bit of hoops star—he was even a middle-school and high-school teammate of NBA most valuable player Stephen Curry.

A few recruiters from Div. II basketball programs were scouting Irwin when his high-school coach chased them off.

“He basically told them, ‘He’s going to college to play soccer, so don’t waste your time.’ I would have told them the same thing,” Irwin quipped in a recent interview with Sportsnet.

“I was a sixth man—a small forward or power forward. My job was basically to play defence, get rebounds, set screens for guys to get open. I only averaged about two points per game my whole career.”

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Irwin, 26, ended up going to Elon University in North Carolina, and he eventually signed with the Colorado Rapids of MLS in 2013 before being traded to Toronto earlier this month.

Basketball remains a big part of Irwin’s life, though, and he credits the sport—and others—for helping him to hone his goalkeeping skills.

“Aside from soccer and basketball, I played baseball and tennis as a kid. With a lot of tennis and basketball the movements around the court are very similar to playing goalkeeper. The jumping, and sliding around, it helped my development as a goalkeeper,” says Irwin, who still plays pickup ball in the winter with his old high-school buddies in order to keep fit.

“I tell young goalkeepers all the time to play basketball when they’re not playing soccer. You get your hands on the ball a lot and you’re able to build up your hand-eye co-ordination that’s so important for the position.”

It works the other way, too, with athletes from other sports playing soccer in their off-season to maintain their fitness and sharpen their sport-specific skills.

“Steve Nash used to play soccer in the summer to stay fit for basketball. Kobe Bryant once said he liked soccer because the quick passing combinations helped him with his visualization on the court,” Irwin said.

Soccer was the first sport Irwin played while growing up in Charlotte, discovering the game as a six-year-old at a local church that ran a recreational league. He played in midfield and in defence, and he also served as a backup goalkeeper. And then…

“When I was around 13 our goalkeeper broke his wrist. I was the only one with playing experience in net, so I went in goal and did very well and just stayed there from there on. It stuck,” Irwin recalled.

He kept playing basketball at the same time but eventually hoops became less and less of a priority for the aspiring soccer shot stopper.

“Once I got to high school and I became what I call an occasional basketball player.… I would miss a lot of winter basketball to play soccer tournaments in Florida as they were big college recruiting showcases,” Irwin explained.

Irwin’s path to MLS was not an easy one. He cut his teeth in North American soccer’s lower leagues—including a stint with the now-defunct Ottawa-based Capital City of the semi-professional Canadian Soccer League—before joining the Rapids three years ago.

Even though Irwin has only three MLS seasons under his belt, TFC defender Drew Moor, a former Colorado teammate, called him “as reliable [a goalkeeper] as they come.”

“I have been with him now for the last three seasons. He has that attitude that he has something to prove. The start to his professional career was not as bright as some people’s and he has worked extremely hard to get where he is,” Moor offered.

Does Irwin feel that he has a point to prove now?

“Definitely. I’ve seen the bottom of the soccer pyramid and I know where I’ve been, and I still have it in the back of my head that, ‘Hey, I could end up there again.’ I‘ve seen it happen before with players. So I want to make sure that doesn’t happen—not to play out of a sense of fear or anything, but to realize how far I’ve come and the opportunities that are ahead of me here in Toronto,” Irwin admitted.

“It inspires me on a daily basis, and I feel like I have something to prove, especially to all the people that maybe passed me over on my way up. That’s always going to spur me on; it’s always going to give me that extra motivation to prove something.”

Check back with next week for John Molinaro’s feature story on Clint Irwin and his time as a high-school basketball teammate of current Golden State Warriors star and NBA most valuable player Stephen Curry.

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