By THOMAS FLOYD
If there has been one constant in the tale of pure persistence that is Clint Irwin’s soccer career, it’s rejection.
Rejection by every MLS team that passed on him in the 2011 drafts. Rejection by countless clubs foreign and domestic that never responded to his inquiries. Rejection after trials with the New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew. With the lower-level Carolina RailHawks and Richmond Kickers. The Harrisburg City Islanders. The Wilmington Hammerheads.
And, over the past month, rejection of MLS attackers trying to find a chink in the armor of the league’s most unlikely starting goalkeeper.
“It’s been crazy, to say the least,” Irwin said. “I can’t express it in words. I’ve really been to the bottom of the soccer pyramid in North America, seen what it’s like. Once you’ve been there, it gives you a unique perspective.”
Two short months ago, Irwin was battling to be the Colorado Rapids’ third-stringer behind incumbent Matt Pickens and backup Steward Ceus. But an opening day mishap pushed Ceus down the depth chart. When Pickens broke his arm two weeks later, Irwin was thrust into action.
How has the 24-year-old responded? With a stingy 0.81 goals against average in five matches. After stoning Real Salt Lake marksman Alvaro Saborio’s penalty kick in a shutout win two weekends ago, Irwin made it back-to-back clean sheets by back-stopping Colorado’s triumph over Chivas USA on Saturday.
Now, rather than being seen as a reject, Irwin is being seen as a revelation.
“It’s a great story, really,” Rapids defender Drew Moor said. “For somebody like that who’s hungry, who’s maybe been rejected by a couple sides at a couple different levels, to stay hungry and stick with it and still be confident, it’s really paying dividends.”
Irwin certainly has taken the road less traveled to MLS. A quad injury late in his senior season at Elon University in North Carolina derailed any hopes he had of being taken in the SuperDraft or supplemental draft, so the shot-stopper embarked on a prolific parade of tryouts.
First was New England. (“I was just not ready for that level.”) The Charleston Battery should have followed. (“I got really sick and wasn’t able to make it.”) Next was a road-warrior stint training with Carolina on Mondays and Wednesdays and Richmond on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (“Neither of them ended up working out.”)
Then came an open combine at Wilmington. (“Didn’t get a call back.”) A trip to Harrisburg on a whim. (“Didn’t get the opportunity.”) How about his hometown Charlotte Eagles? (“Didn’t have any spots open.”)
“At that point, I was really scrambling and didn’t know what to do,” Irwin recalled. “I think I sent emails to every team in the United States and probably a couple to pretty much every team in every division in Scandinavia as well.”
One club, however, would give him that elusive chance: Ottawa-based Capital City FC of the Canadian Soccer League. He acknowledges it wasn’t the highest level of play. Not by a long shot. Yet it was a shot nonetheless.
After starting for Capital City throughout the 2011 campaign, Irwin secured a move the following year to Charlotte in the United Soccer Leagues. By the end of 2012, he was back on the MLS radar, having earned auditions with New York and Columbus that gave him hope of preseason invitations come January.
Thus Irwin was surprised to receive a call, shortly after an open tryout with Charleston, indicating the Rapids were interested in his services. It turned out Todd Hoffard, the departed Red Bulls goalkeepers coach, had put in a good word. A trial with Colorado waited.
Irwin, better than anyone, knew it was far from a sure thing. But Moor could remember the young goalkeeper impressing off the bat. Before long, an MLS deal became inevitable.
On Feb. 21, Irwin officially put pen to paper. His swirling path to the top flight was complete. As arduous as it was, he embraced the journey — disheartening twists and all.
“You have to take some humor from it after being so many places,” said Irwin, who is prone to chuckling about his myriad setbacks. “It’s out of your control, and the only thing you can focus on is your performance and what you can do on the field. So I take motivation from it, but I’m not at all bitter.”
It’s the type of mentality that has already earned Irwin respect within the Colorado locker room, with the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder offering a vocal authority in the penalty area that matches his physical presence.
As Moor said, “He came right in and he wasn’t shy, he wasn’t nervous — at least it didn’t seem like he was.”
At this point, it’s hard to believe that such a confidence-exuding figure was until recently playing for third-tier Charlotte while working a pair of part-time jobs.
Yet Irwin last year could be found in the evening coaching youths at Charlotte United FC. And he spent his afternoons at Kyck, a soccer-oriented social media startup for which he developed content strategy between laying down carpet and piecing together furniture.
The days were long. The toll was heavy. So when Kyck approached Irwin about a full-time position, he contemplated making his playing days a thing of the past.
“Where my career was at that point was not where I am now, and I didn’t really see that path anywhere close,” Irwin said. “So I did have a long, hard think about it. But I spoke to a lot of people about it, and they thought I had the ability and told me to stick with it.
“And I’m really glad I took their advice.”