TORONTO — Last time Clint Irwin played for a Canadian soccer team, he was making $500 a month and living in a four-bedroom, one-bathroom house with eight others.
It was 2011 and the Charlotte native was goalkeeper for Capital City FC, a now-defunct Ottawa team that had one year in the Canadian Soccer League.
"Clint was fantastic for us," recalled team owner Neil Malhotra. "He's a very bright intellectual ... He was great. He was part of our leadership group from the start. He had an excellent season for us."
"He's gotten pretty far in his career since those days," he added.
An MLS all-star, the 26-year-old Irwin joined Toronto FC on Monday in a trade from the Colorado Rapids.
He says he will always be thankful to Ottawa and the CSL for giving him a shot.
"Without them I probably wouldn't be here," he told a conference call Tuesday. "My career would be over. I didn't have any other place to play
"You've got to be thankful for those opportunities. There's definitely some tough times, as there are in all minor-league sports. But I'm thankful that they helped to continue my career and give me that first step to try to reach where I wanted to go."
Irwin landed in Ottawa after a stellar collegiate career at Elon and a number of failed pro tryouts. He went on to play for the USL Charlotte Eagles before landing in Colorado in early 2013.
"There's a lot of things that you learn just in terms of perseverance and hard work and really just trying to keep the faith," Irwin said of his time in Ottawa. "Because there's times where you think 'Wow, I'm playing on a field out in London, Ontario, and there's 10 people watching this game. How am I ever going to make it to MLS?'
"And then a couple of years later, you're playing in front of 40,000 people in Seattle and it's a little surreal at the time," he added. "It kind of grounds you. It (Ottawa) is one of those experiences that I will always remember. You remember where you come from and where you're trying to go."
Irwin said he had no advance warning of the trade, other than watching Colorado position itself for a big roster move. Toronto sent two draft picks — a second-rounder in 2016 and conditional first-rounder in 2017 — to Colorado for Irwin, along with targeted allocation money that could help fund such a marquee signing.
GM Tim Bezbatchenko called Irwin's acquisition "one of the last remaining pieces of the puzzle to take our club from being just an MLS playoff-qualifying club to a consistent contender."
Irwin, who made US$97,00 last season in Colorado, said he's up to the challenge.
"Toronto's a great city and a place where the fans are really passionate about their team and with that comes high expectations. I think I'm prepared for that, I'm ready for that at this stage of my career."
When training camp starts Monday, Irwin will see some familiar faces.
Former Colorado captain Drew Moor, a defender, joined Toronto as a free agent last month. And Irwin may remember 19-year-old striker Jordan Hamilton who welcomed his new goalie via Twitter, cheekily noting his first goal for the Toronto academy came against Irwin and Capital City FC.
Toronto opted not to pick up options on Chris Konopka and Joe Bendik, who split the starting goalie job last season.
"We think it's an upgrade (in goal) because we felt like the chemistry wasn't quite there last year," said Bezbatchenko.
Toronto, along with Chicago and New York City FC, gave up a league-high 58 goals last season.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press