Having seen more illustrious teammates, including a pair of Argentine standouts and the nephew of the Liberian president, repeatedly try and fail to find the net on Saturday, it seemed only fair that Dayne St. Clair got his shot as well.
Though the young Canadian goalkeeper’s desperation effort in the waning minutes was blocked and unable to prevent a 1-0 loss to Austin FC, it provided a timely summation of Minnesota United’s stuttering start to the new Major League Soccer season.
Three games played, and for the first time in the young franchise’s short history, three losses, with just one goal to the good.
It’s a far cry from the breakout 2020 season for the 23-year-old Pickering, Ont., native, who backstopped the Loons to within touching distance of a first appearance in the MLS Cup. That was before the Seattle Sounders exploded for three goals in the final 15 minutes of a Western Conference final that will go down as one of the greatest games in MLS history.
Some young goalkeepers might have felt chastened by that loss, and the resulting hangover might last well into the next season. But almost none of the seven goals that Minnesota has conceded this season could be attributed to any mistake by St. Clair – Loons head coach Adrian Heath said on Friday that the team had “left him out to dry on a couple of them.”
St. Clair said he took last season’s heartbreaking loss as an opportunity to get even better, comparing it to the disappointing season he experienced in his sophomore year at the University of Maryland. The team rebounded to win the NCAA championship the following year.
“I think sometimes wins and stuff can cover up some things,” he said Friday. “So I think kind of when you get smacked in the face a little bit you kind of have to take another sec to take a look at yourself in the mirror and kind of think, where can I improve?”
On paper, there isn’t a whole lot that St. Clair could improve on. The Canadian keeper started the final 16 games of the season for the Loons last year, regular season and playoffs, had eight clean sheets and conceded just 15 goals.
So conceding seven goals in the opening three games of the season isn’t going to change the way he goes about his work. He’s just going to roll up his sleeves and do what’s necessary on a daily basis to get back in the win column.
“He’s a very calm character,” Minnesota goalkeeper coach Stewart Kerr says. “He’s got a steely determination but he’s got quite an old head on young shoulders. He doesn’t get too high when he’s high, he doesn’t get too low when he’s low. He’s got a pretty good perspective on things, not just in sport but in life.”
His goals-against average may have ballooned somewhat this year, but it remains unblemished on penalty kicks. While almost everything else went pear-shaped in the Loons’ 4-0 season-opening rematch with Seattle last month, St. Clair denied Sounders marksman Raul Ruidiaz from the spot. He has now faced three penalties – all against high-salaried designated players from South America – and is yet to concede any, with two saves and a shuddering crossbar to show for it. The run of success puts him one away from the MLS record of four to begin a career.
Kerr, no stranger to penalty success himself, having once saved a spot kick from Paul Gascoigne while playing in an Old Firm game for Celtic, says St. Clair’s calmness under pressure is a key part of his success. And while he says the two will go over tape of the opposition’s penalty taker in advance of a game, he never wants his goalkeepers to approach the moment with a predetermined plan.
St. Clair concurs, and both agree that staying upright as long as possible takes away any advantage the penalty taker might have. After all, at 6-foot-3, St. Clair doesn’t look any smaller the closer the shooters get to him.
“I think a lot of guys now are looking at goalies and waiting for them to make the first move so I kind of just try to hold my ground as long as possible,” he says. “I feel like the closer that they get to the ball without me moving I kind of look a little bit bigger is the way that I’ve tried to picture it.”
His early career success hasn’t gone unnoticed by the national-team hierarchy either. He was supposed to be part of the under-23 squad going to the original Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico last year that was wiped out by COVID-19.
But when the rescheduled tournament rolled around this year, his performances in the interceding 12 months meant a promotion to John Herdman’s Canada squad for the pair of World Cup qualifiers in March instead.
Though he has yet to make his senior debut, just being around the likes of Alphonso Davies and Cyle Larin was a thrill, as well as friends Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller – who both played with St. Clair growing up with Vaughan Azzurri.
But it was the presence of one the Canadian national team stalwarts that really encapsulated the moment.
“Seeing some of the guys like Atiba [Hutchinson] that have worn the shirt for a long time and brought the program a very long way kind of just to connect it all together I think is something special and something I hope to continue to be a part of,” St. Clair said.
While Canadian starting goalkeeper Milan Borjan is far from over the hill at 33, there is a fascinating battle behind him to be his No. 2, and eventual successor. Both St. Clair and 26-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau are currently competing for that spot, with one eye on the 2026 World Cup, to be held jointly in Canada, the United States and Mexico.
Kerr, who feels that national-team call-ups can improve a player between 5 and 10 per cent, says that the battle between the two will only be to St. Clair’s benefit.
“By all accounts, [Crepeau’s] a very hard trainer, he works really hard and I think that’s really good for Dayne because Dayne’s probably more naturally talented, but he cannot slack off in the training department,” Kerr says.
Not that St. Clair would likely entertain it. The very talk of World Cups had him steering the conversation back to the day-to-day of Minnesota United. After Saturday’s loss, the task of turning the season around got a little harder, but St. Clair puts it in perspective, pointing out that with a usual 34-game regular season on tap this year, as opposed to the pandemic-shortened campaign of a year ago, there is plenty of time to get things right.
“I think it’s still very early on in the season, and with the longer season or regular season this year, these games of course are important, but they don’t hold as much weight as when we only had 15 or 20 games,” he said.