Every time Clint Irwin finds himself back in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, he makes a point of catching up with his old boss, Kyck CEO Mac Lackey, and they end up having the same conversation.
About three-and-a-half years ago while Irwin was toiling in the United Soccer League (USL) for the Charlotte Eagles, Lackey held out the ultimate temptation for Irwin: come and join the corporate world. Leave professional soccer behind; you'll have stability, a steady paycheck and opportunity for advancement. Irwin, who had already worked at the technology company for a year while juggling his playing duties with Charlotte, weighed up the offer and decided to go all-in, but not in the direction that Lackey hoped. Irwin would quit his job, train full time and give a professional soccer career one last shot.
"I said, 'Well, I'm super supportive, you don't want to leave any regrets on the table,'" Lackey, himself a former Eagles player, told ESPN FC. "But in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'A guy in your position, you need to hang it up and start working.'"
Now that the 26-year-old Irwin is an established starting goalkeeper in MLS with Toronto FC, the two former colleagues look back and laugh, getting stuck in a conversational Groundhog Day.
"Mac always gives me a hard time," Irwin said. "'Do you think you made the right decision?' I'm like, 'You know, I think I did.' He's like, 'You know, I'm still not convinced.'"
Jokes aside, if Lackey is in need of additional evidence, he need only bring up a replay of Toronto's 2-0 victory against the New York Red Bulls last Sunday. It was one of those games that is mentally taxing for a goalkeeper. Irwin was credited with just one save, but New York held a massive 63-37 percent advantage in possession, which required maximum concentration on the part of the keeper. Toronto defender Drew Moor praised him after the game for his "organization, his communication and when he was called into action."
Irwin's performance was even more impressive when you consider the tumultuous offseason he experienced. Irwin was coming off of a solid campaign with the Colorado Rapids and the months of November and December proved to be quiet enough. But in January, the first rumblings of USMNT keeper Tim Howard's reported move to Colorado from Everton first emerged. Irwin says that initially, he wasn't quite sure how seriously to take the news but just a few days later, he was told he was being traded to Toronto.
"It was definitely a shock," he said. "I had no real inclination or heads-up or anything. But my conversations with Colorado to finish things out were very positive. We left on a good note. On the other side of things, you really don't get to pick in those instances and they can kind of ship you anywhere. To send me to Toronto, a really amazing club with high expectations, big ambitions, very good players here and all together just a class setup, I was really [excited] after finding out that news."
Those aforementioned expectations amount to a considerable change for Irwin. In Colorado, the club's prospects had shrunk after missing the playoffs two years in a row. Toronto, with a revamped defense, and with Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and league MVP Sebastian Giovinco already on board, is poised to join the league's elite.
"Toronto is definitely a little bit different than Colorado," said Irwin. "It's definitely a big city, with probably a larger fan base just based on the size of the city, more media outlets and whatnot. But at the same time I hold myself to higher standards than probably the people on the outside do. You've got to embrace those expectations, let it drive you on. You've got to realize that everyone here is trying to do their best to win. With those expectations it just pushes people to excellence."
That is something Irwin has been doing his entire career, no matter how humble his surroundings. He played four years at Elon University and started his professional career in the Canadian Soccer League with Ottawa-based Capital City F.C. -- MLS seemed a world away.
"You're playing on a high school field with probably 30 people watching in what at the time was probably a semi-pro league," he added. "Some of the teams I would classify as pub teams. You go out there and you just think, 'Is my career ever going to amount to more than playing in these games? Am I ever going to get a shot at a higher level?'"
He did, but it took some doing. Irwin went on innumerable trials at both the USL and MLS level. But a timely conversation with then-Charlotte manager Mark Steffens convinced the keeper he had what it took to make it in MLS. And along the way, the uncertainty that comes with being a trialist eventually steeled him for what lay ahead.
"With a trial, it was life or death every training session," he said. "That's the way you had to approach it, but at the same time realize that a lot of the decisions that are made, especially at the goalkeeper position, might have nothing to do with your actual performance. At the same time realizing that I still need to perform well because it's down the road that my name might come up, or they might remember how I did here, or remember how I played. That opportunity might get me in, or might get me on a roster and kind of go from there."
That is precisely how Irwin landed in MLS. Steffen arranged for Irwin to go on trial with the New York Red Bulls, and while the keeper impressed, it appeared to be for nothing as manager Hans Backe and the rest of his staff were fired at the end of the 2012 season. However, goalkeeping coach Todd Hoffard put in a good word for Irwin in Colorado, and he was eventually signed just prior to the 2013 campaign.
"The first thing I noticed about Irwin was his composure," David Dir, Colorado's goalkeeper coach at the time told ESPN FC. "Usually when you have guys that have never played at that level, they don't have that. You could notice how composed he was in any situation. And as a former goalkeeper, I'm really big on people's hands. It's kind of an old school thing, how well people catch the ball. Everything is deflected or punched given how the ball moves and the pace of the ball now. He had a really good body composition for how he got his body behind the ball and catching balls."
Fate then smiled on Irwin to give him a chance as first-choice Matt Pickens broke his arm against Real Salt Lake in the third game of the season. Moor, who played for Colorado then, recalled grabbing Irwin and just telling him to enjoy the moment.
"I thought I needed to be the veteran and let him know that we had his back," he said. "Honestly, ever since then I've felt like he could have said that to me. He's had my back ever since then. He was a calming influence and always has been ever since that day."
That first season proved to be an education for Irwin. He recalled that initially he was just playing on adrenaline -- "a joy ride," he called it -- but then the grind of the season begins to take a toll and the inevitable mistakes start to crop up.
"That's when you find out who you are as a goalkeeper," he said. "You've got to respond to those mistakes. You've got to train harder, and sometimes there's some self-doubt as well. You're a third-string keeper. Do I belong in this spot? Am I good enough? Am I actually a third-string keeper or am I a starter? You kind of play that mental game with yourself. That's just part of the ups and downs of being a goalkeeper. It's really part of the mental aspect of the position."
Irwin was tested even further during his second season in 2014, and was even benched for a spell by manager Pablo Mastroeni, even though the entire team imploded. Yet Irwin regained his place, and in 2015, even though the Rapids missed the playoffs again, he turned in a solid campaign.
Now Irwin finds himself an MLS Cup contender. Yet as he tries to settle in with new teammates and coaches, he will allow himself to look back at those times in Ottawa, Charlotte and even the places where he went on trial and didn't stick. And yes, he thinks back to that moment in Mac Lackey's office as well.
"Honestly, it's every opening season or before a big game with a lot of people, you're standing out there for the anthem and the walkout, it's inevitable to remember how far you've come, how close you were to giving the game up," he said. "It was probably a risky decision to take at the time, and just going all-in for it."
For Irwin, it's one that has clearly worked out.