Clint Irwin could have been forgiven for wondering what exactly 2017 had in store.
It is likely the goalkeeper had been told a deal was in place to bring him back to Toronto FC when he was selected by Atlanta United in the MLS Expansion Draft in December, but entering the process on the club’s unprotected list must nevertheless have been unsettling.
Less than two months later, though, Irwin is preparing for the new season as the Reds’ starting goalkeeper with the security of a new, improved contract. Despite his midseason injury, he provided excellent value in 2016 on a $95,625 deal that was always likely to be up for discussion this winter.
Neither the play to reacquire Irwin nor the improved terms are particularly surprising, but it still feels like an important vote of confidence from the club given the way last season played out. There was a real debate, at least among fans, as to whether Alex Bono should keep his place in net having played well while Irwin was injured, and the more experienced man’s shaky USL return with TFC II was followed by a solid but unspectacular comeback in MLS.
Irwin did not quite hit top form again after the injury, and that might have been a problem if not for the excellent protection he received for all but two games of the playoffs. When things opened up in the conference final against the Montreal Impact, Irwin allowed a couple of goals he would probably like to have back, though he does deserve credit for a key save at 0-0 in the first leg of the previous round against New York City.
With a clear mind and a full preseason under his belt, Irwin will be hoping to get back to where he was in the first few months of the 2016 campaign. Whereas last year he entered the season - and lived up to expectations - as the solution to one of Toronto’s many defensive problems and their undisputed No. 1, however, this year Greg Vanney knows what he has in Bono. The talented 22-year-old is no longer an unknown quantity and over the nerves of his disastrous start in MLS, ready to play when called upon.
That adds an element of pressure, but part of the package with Irwin is an authority and degree of leadership that Bono will struggle to provide two years out of the SuperDraft. That was highlighted by Drew Moor, who is over five years his senior, when he recalled Irwin’s debut with the Colorado Rapids in a game against Real Salt Lake.
“I thought I needed to be the veteran and let him know that we had his back,” Moor told ESPN FC. “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.”
“He never gets over emotional in either direction and it’s really stabilizing for our back line to know he’s back there,” Vanney echoed last season.
Irwin, who studied political science at Elon University and offered eloquent thoughts on the U.S. presidential election both via interviews and his Twitter account last season, is regularly talked about in terms of his poise and good judgment.
Those traits, most often associated with veterans, make it easy to forget that the debut Moor was talking about was not in the distant past but in 2013. Irwin does not turn 28 until April; at the same age the man he was traded to make room for in Colorado, Tim Howard, had only just joined Everton on a permanent basis for a spell that would yield more than 300 appearances in the Premier League.
While Bono has plenty of a room to improve and the best of his career ahead of him, Irwin can justifiably argue that applies to himself, too. That should not be forgotten as their battle for the place between the posts commences for 2017.