Big things can start from humble beginnings. Witness the career path of Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin.
Minding the net for a team that reached an MLS Cup final may have seemed a pipe dream at the start of his career, but Irwin persevered on the long road to Toronto.
A multi-sport athlete throughout his childhood, Irwin had yet to set his sights on a professional career in soccer until his days at Elon University. A late start for sure.
“I had played in high school and I played on my state-level team, but I never really got into the national pool or anything like that; I just wanted to keep playing because it’s what I enjoyed doing,” he says. “Once I got into college, you start to play guys from other teams and start to see ‘ok, these are the guys that are going to make it to the next level and are able to play pro.’ Then you’re able to take stock of where you’re at and what level you’re at and what you need to improve on. I think that’s when it started to become more real.”
In his quest to follow his professional dream, Irwin traversed his home state of North Carolina honing his craft, making stops with the Carolina Dynamo and Charlotte Eagles of the Premier Development League. But sandwiched between those two stints, Irwin found himself north of the U.S. border in a place he never imagined he’d be.
I try to take challenges as they come. Certain things are out of your control, but what is in your control is how hard you work to get back to where you were. It’s about staying positive and being there for your team.
In 2011, Irwin signed with Capital City F.C., a now-defunct club based in Ottawa competing in the Canadian Soccer League. The experience came with its fair share of challenges.
“It was difficult,” Irwin admits, “but at the same time you look back at it and it was rewarding because you realize what it takes to make it to the MLS and to make it to levels higher than that. It kind of grounds you because it shows you the other side of what other players have to go through to get this level.”
His first foray into Canada was a much different experience than the one he currently enjoys in Toronto. Living in a four-bedroom house with seven other teammates, as he did in Ottawa, can give you a fair amount of perspective.
“It was certainly a learning experience. You find out what it takes to be in a situation that maybe isn’t your first choice to be in, but it’s a necessary step to get to where you want to go. At the time you’re thinking, this is the last thing I want to do but I’m thankful that I went through that experience because I learned a lot from it.”
After a successful spell with the Rapids in Colorado, Irwin found his way back to Canada in 2016, but things were much different this time around. Placing himself in difficult scenarios began to pay dividends.
“The first time was difficult just because you don’t really know what to expect, you don’t know the city you’re going to, or you’ve gotten comfortable in the city that you’re in. Then to pick it all up and go to a new team, new atmosphere, new coaching staff – new people, new environment. It’s tough the first time and it takes some time to adjust but really after the first one, it was a feeling of ‘I’ve been here, I’ve done this.’ You know what it takes and what you need to do to integrate yourself with the team and the community.”
After spending a year in the country’s capital, Irwin welcomed the move to Toronto to gain a new perspective on Canada and a fresh start in one of the world’s most unique cities.
“It’s the biggest city I’ve been in,” he says. “It’s the most diverse city I’ve ever been a part of and it’s one where you get something new every day. It just seems like the city is evolving month by month, growing a ton. People are moving in and it’s a lot more fast-paced than other places that I’ve been in. I think that makes it an exciting place to live.”
Now in his second season with the Reds, Irwin has continued to explore the city while finding his niche. Striking the balance between the hustle and bustle of the big city and the seclusion of the country isn’t always easy, but Toronto has offered a little bit of both.
Settling down in Leslieville, Irwin often finds himself at Kew Gardens to get away from it all.
“It’s an ongoing conversation,” he explains. “We’ve lived in so many places and we like to be close to the city because there’s plenty of things to do, restaurants to try out, just so much going on that you want to experience, but not so much where you’re in the core of it where you feel like your life is going 100 miles an hour and you can’t just sit and breathe. But then you can spend some time at a park like this by the water and you can sit and get out to what feels like the outdoors a little bit and walk around and have a quiet moment to breathe, I think that’s what we’re looking for.”
Irwin’s road has certainly been winding, but his success on the pitch has been consistent. Recently backstopping the Reds to another Voyageurs Cup in June, Irwin has his sights set on more silverware and a return to MLS Cup, where he hopes to recapture the magic and passion so often seen throughout the city.
“Everyone was so behind us, that was what disappointed us the most. We want to get over that hump and we want to bring a championship to Toronto because it’s all that anyone ever talks about here. You can almost feel it with all the professional teams here like there’s a race to be the first team to do it. We really want to be the first team to do it.”