Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin's breakthrough season in 2013 may have just been the beginning.
Following an offseason training stint with Premier League side Everton FC, the 24-year old admits he has another target to reach.
"A lot of us have goals to play in Europe and to play at that level, so to see it first hand is always going to inspire you a little bit extra," Irwin told ColoradoRapids.com of his experience training in England. "It all starts here (Colorado). You can't get better if you're not doing it here first. Your focus is here, but you realize that's the next level that you want to reach, but you have to prove yourself here first."
Irwin and teammates Dillon Serna and Chris Klute spent 11 days in December training with Everton, which is coached by Roberto Martinez and features U.S. number one goalkeeper Tim Howard.
"It was great being in that environment and seeing what that level was," Irwin said. "It was good to see what that next step is and sort of visualize where those players are at and how they handle themselves. Being around someone like Tim Howard is always great, just to see his training habits and how he handles himself."
Irwin trained some days with Everton's Under-21 side but also practiced with the Toffee's first team and Spanish goalkeeping coach Inaki Bergara
"It was very high tempo and a lot of agility," Irwin said of the practice sessions. "You see that in the Spanish and Latin goalkeepers, they're flying around and getting up, getting quick, working across the goal. Whereas our style is a lot more shot-stopping and you're standing on your feet a lot, working in more game situations. I actually enjoyed it a lot and hopefully can bring some of that back over here."
First session at Everton in the books. Took a ball to the face, little blood and dirt. "Welcome to England, mate!" pic.twitter.com/prIuc8uzVe— Clint Irwin (@ClintIrwin) December 15, 2013
Despite only one year of top flight experience, Irwin did not feel out of place practicing with an established group of pros.
"Working with Roberto Martinez, he has a lot of the same ideas that we've seen here," Irwin noted. "It was all very similar - I don't think I felt like I was out of my comfort zone. On the goalkeeper side, you just kind of adjust quickly and learn as much as you can in that short period of time."
For Irwin, the main difference between MLS and his experience at Everton was "the attention to details."
"I didn't think the level was a huge jump up from MLS," he said. "I think there are a lot of players from MLS who can slide in and do a good job there. But I think the quality is so good all the time there. The passes are sharp, the finishing is sharp, the ball doesn't get turned over too many times, the people are very calm, there's options on the ball. Just seeing that - those details and the focus associated with that - was good to see."
After taking a shot to the face which left him bleeding early in the week, Irwin said one of his highlights was a 30-minute finishing drill with Belgium international Romelu Lukaku, who leads Everton with nine goals on the year.
Back at Dick's Sporting Goods Park preparing for the Rapids preseason later this month, Irwin reflected on the experience knowing that he's not quite where he wants to be, but also not too far behind.
"I wouldn't say that I'm at that level, but it's something to aspire to and that I can reach that level," he said. "That was sort of the feedback that I got. I don't think I was discouraged by what I showed there. That gives you that extra appetite to reach those goals."