By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – This preseason has been a reunion of sorts for Toronto FC’s Clint Irwin and Mark Bloom, who will suit up for the same club again after taking different routes from the same starting point to reach the MLS Eastern Conference power.
Back in 2012, the duo were key figures for the Charlotte Eagles, then part of the USL, as the club made a remarkable run to the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Unofficially staking a claim as the best team in Texas, the Eagles first defeated the PDL’s El Paso Patriots before wins against FC Dallas and the San Antonio Scorpions left them as one of the last eight teams standing.
“I had a great time. I loved playing for that team,” Bloom said. “I think we had a great team, some really quality players, as we showed as we played against better and better competition. I think that run in the Open Cup wasn’t a fluke, and that was a time when Clint shined.”
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As remarkable as it might seem now, Irwin was the Eagles’ back-up goalkeeper in 2012 behind veteran Eric Reed. When the former Elon standout got his chance to shine in the Open Cup, though, he more than took advantage. Irwin notched a shutout against Dallas, and then made a number of big saves in the Eagles’ overtime win in San Antonio to set up a clash with Chivas USA.
In the end, though, it wasn’t to be. While Mauricio Salles scored a late equalizer to pull the Eagles level, Andres Correa’s stoppage-time goal brought the Eagles’ dream to an end.
“It was a fun run, for sure,” Irwin said. “At that point you’re looking at the quarterfinals, and there’s only a handful of teams left. We’d beaten FC Dallas, we weren’t really scared of anyone at this point, and we felt like we had a really good shot. We played really well against Chivas, I felt like, but we just couldn’t find a goal in the end.”
Both Irwin and Bloom moved on from Charlotte at the end of 2012. Irwin earned a contract with the Colorado Rapids after shining in preseason, while Bloom joined the Atlanta Silverbacks. The two remained in touch, and reconnected later in 2013 after Bloom joined Toronto FC on loan.
“One of the first few games [after joining Toronto] we played Colorado, so we met up for dinner and kind of reminisced a little bit, so that was kind of fun,” Bloom said.
“We were going through similar situations, working our way up the leagues, and then kinda getting our shot and trying to prove ourselves,” Irwin said. “It’s been pretty similar in that respect, and it’s been fun to get back together again.”
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After being thrust into the spotlight with the Rapids early in 2013, Irwin has quickly become one of the league’s more respected goalkeepers. When Toronto negotiated a trade this offseason to bring the 26-year-old in as its new No.1, it brought new levels of expectation as Irwin joined a squad that expects to be near the top of the Eastern Conference this season.
As he enters the glare of Toronto’s starting lineup, Irwin is looking forward to the challenge.
“Those expectations, no matter what they are, you always want to exceed them, and the higher they are, the better it is as a player,” Irwin said. “It really pushes you on. You want to stay focused on what those goals are. To have a club that demands that excellence day-in and day-out, and has high expectations is exciting for me. I’m excited to experience that.”
Bloom believes Irwin will be up to the challenge, and continue to show the form he first displayed when the two were last teammates in Charlotte.“I expect the same,” Bloom said. “He’s only gotten better, and he’s only going to continue to get better so we’ve got nothing but full faith.”