an interview with professional shot stopper clint irwin

Colorado Rapids Goalkeeper Clint Irwin
the latest player i’ve coerced to answer my questions: the rapids’ clint irwin.

Goalkeepers: they always make for such interesting individuals. If nothing else, there’s something intriguing about a guy that willingly places himself in the line of fire for 90 minutes week in and week out. Diving and throwing himself, sometimes blindly, about through the air, clattering into players and the ground, sacrificing one’s body all just to keep a sphere from going between a pair of sticks. It takes a, umm, special kind of person to be such a glutton for punishment.

Not only that, but often times many goalkeepers do all of that week in and week out in training without much hope of actually getting to see the pitch during the next game. After all, only one keeper per team gets to play each match. Veteran backups and youngsters alike patiently await their opportunity, and for some it never comes.

But every once in a while, an opportunity does come to pass where a new face is given a chance to shine. And it just so happens that such an opportunity just arose for Colorado Rapids rookie Clint Irwin. A surprise starter in the last few matches for the Rapids, Irwin and I had a conversation about his gradual rise to the big time and his breakthrough into MLS.

And as you might expect from a goal keeper, it was definitely an interesting talk.

D.J. @ WSOTP: First off, congratulations on breaking through into MLS this season! I know it’s been a long journey from your days growing up in Charlotte. Speaking of which, where did you get your start playing club soccer while growing up?

Clint Irwin: Thanks DJ. Definitely a long journey. I’ve probably had ten different teams at USL, NASL and MLS levels say I wasn’t good enough, so it’s a great feeling to be where I am.

I grew up playing for Charlotte United FC in Charlotte but didn’t really have any success until U16, U17 and U18. In addition, I was part of the North Carolina ODP team (somehow we won the National ODP Championship for the ’89 age group in 2007) and Region III Team. I went on and played four seasons at Elon University of the Southern Conference which was also in North Carolina.

Elon University's Clint Irwin
clint was already thinking big while at elon university.

D.J. @ WSOTP: Most of us have day dreamed at some point about getting paid to play, but few ever actually try or are even capable of making a run at making that dream a reality. When did you know decide that you were actually going to try to make it to the big time?

Clint Irwin: My Region team and college experiences helped me realize that I could compete and hold my own with the best players from around the country. At Elon, we regularly played against the best of the ACC (UNC, Duke, Wake Forest) and got positive results against them. I knew that I was on a track, if I kept progressing, to possibly play at the professional level. During my freshman year, I really decided to do everything I could to make myself the best player I could in that time.

In my first professional experiences, while it wasn’t where I wanted to be or where I thought I should be at the time, it allowed me to really figure out who I was as a player. It hasn’t come easy for me, but I’m glad it hasn’t. Without those initial setbacks, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.

D.J. @ WSOTP: When not doing the professional soccer thing, what’s been your favorite part about living in Colorado to this point? 

Clint Irwin: I think the best part is just waking up and seeing the spectacular Rocky Mountains every day. I’ve only gotten up there once, but I’m looking forward to getting in some camping and hiking this summer.

D.J. @ WSOTP: What three things would you want to bring to Denver that you can’t currently get from back home in North Carolina? (I will be disappointed if your answers are anything other than Bojangles, sweet tea and seersucker suits.) 

Clint Irwin: Well, since you’ve named two of my top choices (Bojangles and sweet tea) and I’ve brought my seersucker with me, I’ll have to go in a different direction. Three things I wish I could bring to Denver would be the Carolina beaches, Southern accents and our golden retriever, Xabi Alonso. Conversely, the three things I’m glad have not followed me to Denver include humidity, transplanted Northerners and the general panic that occurs during snowfall.

D.J. @ WSOTP: Having played at every levels in the North American soccer pyramid — spending time the CSA’s Capital City FC, the PDL’s Carolina Dynamo and USL Pro’s Charlotte Eagles — what have been some of the biggest differences between playing for the lower league sides, and a first division club like the Colorado Rapids? 

Clint Irwin: I’ve probably spent time on trial or elsewhere with nearly half of the USL and NASL, so I feel like I’m well-qualified to answer this question. The biggest difference has to be the speed of play. Each league is physical but in MLS the ball moves quicker. Your decision making and reactions have to be quicker and it certainly takes some time to adjust. But at the same time, that speed of play makes it really fun to play.

D.J. @ WSOTP: What was it like playing in Canada? I’ve heard rumors that players are only given maple syrup to drink during games up there.

Clint Irwin: Canada was a difficult experience. I lived with 7 other guys in a 4 bedroom/1 bathroom house, slept on bunk beds and generally tried to stretch our dollar as far as possible, which, if you’ve ever been to Canada, you’ll know is difficult in a place where everything seems to be marked up 20% (somehow Canada got the short straw in that NAFTA deal). I can neither confirm nor deny the maple syrup rumors, but in the world’s leading producer of maple syrup, it somehow wasn’t any cheaper.

Playing wise it was difficult, my team had a lot of young talent, some Canadian youth internationals and other players from the college system who were overlooked and hungry to prove themselves. The league itself had plenty of quality at the top and a dearth of quality at the bottom. Some teams had players who had played in the Champions League with clubs like Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb, who had come to finish their careers in Canada. I’d classify it as a semi-pro league.

Looking back though, I’m glad I faced these hardships. It’s made me so much more thankful to be where I am now and ultimately made me mentally stronger as a player.

Colorado Rapids' Clint Irwin against Real Salt Lake on 3/16/2013
clint had to raise his game to new heights to scale the american soccer pyramid.

D.J. @ WSOTP: You made your league debut at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium in week three after starter Matt Pickens broke his arm. Do you, or do you not, have a Pickens-shaped voodoo doll… also how did it feel making your first appearance?

Clint Irwin: No voodoo doll but I have been bending spoons to speed up his recovery. It’s been disappointing not to see him out on the pitch with us. I like to learn through observation and the time I’ve been able to spend training with Matt has been invaluable in my development. I hope he’s back soon.

My first appearance was certainly an experience I’ll never forget. The circumstances were unique but I felt prepared by the coaching staff here to step in when called on. It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for a long time and one in which I knew I could excel. Once you get out there, the job doesn’t change. You’re trying to stop the other team from scoring. The only thing that’s different from when you’re 14 is the number of people watching.

D.J. @ WSOTP: Things certainly didn’t get any easier for you in your first start the following week at two-time defending MLS Cup holders LA at the Home Depot Center. Tell me a little about your first experience going into the match as a starter against such stiff competition. Were you at all shocked to be starting so soon in your young career?

Clint Irwin: It didn’t really feel like a first start after the match in RSL. I had played 85 minutes in Salt Lake in a really difficult atmosphere, a derby match, so I knew I could handle it. I was actually disappointed to be playing LA during an international break. You want to test yourself against the best, the guys you grew up watching, so the absence of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez was a bit of a letdown.

We weren’t able to get the result, but after the game Carlo Cudicini, the EPL vet, told me in the tunnel that I played well. I thought that was pretty cool, and something I’ll definitely remember (#GKUnion).

D.J. @ WSOTP: Speaking of the Home Depot Center, you’ve now played at three of MLS’ “soccer specific stadiums” including Rio Tinto and Dick Sporting Goods Park. How would you compare the crowd atmosphere and facilities of each? 

Clint Irwin: Each one has its own characteristics that you appreciate. At the HDC, at least in my first appearance, I don’t know if it’s the way the lights are or what but you get the feeling it’s a big-time venue. I remember thinking, “This looks exactly like the Nike commercials they film here.”

What I remember about Rio Tinto was just the noise. It was opening day so the place was packed and it was a great atmosphere to play in. Of course, you’re trying to silence your biggest rival so it was great to hear them go quiet on our goal.

At home, it’s great to be in front of your supporters. The Centennial 38 (our supporters group) has really shown me a lot of support. It’s certainly helped me settle in much quicker. When other clubs visit, they always talk about the altitude, and while I’ve adjusted, I can definitely remember my first week training it felt like you had 400 lbs sitting on your chest. It’s a great home field advantage.

D.J. @ WSOTP: Are there any teams or players that you’re really hoping to get to face this season? Or is that putting the cart before the horse?

Clint Irwin: You’re always focused on the next game but you know the teams in your conference and how important those games are. I look forward to each road trip as it’s likely a new city and stadium I haven’t played in before. I think most players would say the Portland and Seattle matches are ones you look forward to, just based on the atmosphere at those stadiums.  Players wise, I’m looking forward to Robbie Keane, Chris Wondolowski and Landon Donovan. I got a chance to play with Thierry Henry when I was on trial with the Red Bulls so those three are now at the top of the list.

D.J. @ WSOTP: Now while you were still down in Charlotte, you worked at soccer social media service KYCK. As a long-standing member of that community, I thought they would like the opportunity to ask you some questions too. My favorites came in the form the back-to-back requests of “Was [KYCK teammate] Reid Phillips ever good at soccer?” and “What was it like to get megged by Reid?” Together, those questions seem to call your ability into question. Care to comment?

Clint Irwin: First off, shout out to the KYCK crew. I really enjoyed my other employment while I was playing in Charlotte and learned a lot from some really smart people. Be sure to check out if you’re a big soccer fan.

Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin
the goalkeeper proves a bright interviewee, seeing right through my ruse of trying to use this interview to draft him in to my amateur side.

As for Reid, he was an underrated member of our 2-time State Championship club team. He wasn’t especially fast or strong in the tackle, but he could find that half-yard and deliver an exceptional ball with his right foot from the wing and on set pieces. You always need that type of player in any successful team and Reid certainly contributed his share of assists.

Finally, Reid never megged me. I don’t know where that notion came from. 

D.J. @ WSOTP: So knowing that competition for playing time at goalkeeper is steep, I’ve got a proposal for you: should you ever find regular minutes lacking this season, my men’s amateur team in Ohio is short a goalkeeper this season, and we’d be happy to take you on a short loan with to get you some minutes. What do we need do to make this happen?

Clint Irwin: I appreciate the offer. Unfortunately, I’ve been contracted by my buddy Ben’s co-ed adult league team in the offseason. It’s a good social opportunity. My contract stipulations are that I only play in the field as a target forward. I’m sure some sort of transfer fee can be arranged though (I’ll give you my routing number later).

D.J. @ WSOTP: Well Clint, thanks for the opportunity to get up close and personal. Best of luck in the games ahead and keep up  the good work!

Clint Irwin: I appreciate the offer. Unfortunately, I’ve been contracted by my buddy Ben’s co-ed adult league team in the offseason. It’s a good social opportunity. My contract stipulations are that I only play in the field as a target forward. I’m sure some sort of transfer fee can be arranged though (I’ll give you my routing number later).

D.J. @ WSOTP: Well Clint, thanks for the opportunity to get up close and personal. Best of luck in the games ahead and keep up the good work!

Clint Irwin: Thank you for having me DJ! See you in Columbus?

D.J. @ WSOTP: You know, Clint… I think that can be arranged.

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