Opportunity came knocking this season for Dayne St. Clair. And the Canadian goalkeeper has made the most of it.
The 23-year-old from Pickering, Ont., has started the last six games for Minnesota United FC, posting two clean sheets and a 1.17 goals-against average. St. Clair also acrobatically stopped a Darwin Quintero penalty kick with his foot in a 2-2 tie with the Houston Dynamo on Sept. 19.
“It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind with corona(virus), going out on loan and coming back, but I’m happy to be starting games and doing well,” said St. Clair.
The former Canadian under-20 ‘keeper was recalled from his loan to San Antonio FC in the USL Championship in mid-August after Minnesota lost starter Tyler Miller to season-ending hip surgery. Miller, a former LAFC goalkeeper, had taken the place of 2019 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone, who has moved on to Monaco.
Toronto-born Greg Ranjitsingh, who plays internationally for Trinidad and Tobago, played the first three games in place of Miller before coach Adrian Heath handed the starting job to St. Clair.
He posted a shutout in his MLS debut, a 4-0 win over visiting Real Salt Lake on Sept. 6.
“Definitely a little bit of nerves, it being my first MLS game, but I was just trying to approach it like it was going to be another game,” said St. Clair, a former NCAA champion. “I know I’ve played in big games before in my career and I was able to go get games this year (in the USL) … I was just trying to apply the things that I know and not try to complicate things — just try to keep things simple and do my job, keeping the ball out of the back of the net.”
A knee injury to Ranjitsingh that required surgery left Minnesota with 16-year-old Fred Emmings as St. Clair’s backup. That prompted the Loons to acquire Adrian Zendejas in a trade with Nashville on Sept. 17
“While we’ve got loads of faith in young Fred Emmings, we didn’t want — if the situation arose (where he was needed to play) — to put him under that much pressure,” Heath said at the time.
“We’ve been really pleased with Dayne so far … He’s been very assured. He’s been very calm,” he added. “He’s been confident, which we know about him.
“I think the most important thing for young guys is going and playing meaningful football. And that’s the big thing for young players when they come into the professional game.
“They’ve been used to playing football maybe for the love of it, for just enjoying it. But when it becomes your job and it becomes people’s livelihoods, not only his fellow teammates, coaching staff, where there’s so much more at stake, I think that is something certainly I feel he’s got a better grasp of that — the importance of every single time he plays.”
Minnesota took St. Clair seventh overall in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft from the University of Maryland. He finished his collegiate career by winning the NCAA title, going five games at the tournament without conceding a goal. He ended his time as a Terrapin on a 500-minute shutout run.
A talented shot-stopper, St. Clair also excels at distributing the ball — a key skill for the modern goalie.
He played for Minnesota’s USL affiliate Forward Madison last season, splitting training time with the MLS and USL clubs. He saw action for the Loons in international friendlies against Hertha Berlin, Aston Villa and Mexico’s CF Pachuca.
At San Antonio this year, he played under Canadian coach Alen Marcina.
St. Clair started pre-season with San Antonio was but was called up to serve as Minnesota’s backup for the first few games while Ranjitsingh got his green card. He returned to San Antonio and was set to start, only to have the season halted by the pandemic.
He spent lockdown in Texas, eventually playing five games before being recalled by Minnesota.
“Going into it I knew that this year was going to be really important for me to go get game experience,” said St. Clair. “Part of the plan from Minnesota was for me to go out on loan for the year, (to) call me back if they needed. but just to go get the game experience.
“With each game (with San Antonio), I felt like I was getting better. And the team was doing really well down there as well. It gave me a lot of confidence when I was called back to Minnesota.”
St. Clair started out as an outfield player, making the move to goalkeeper at age 14.
He developed at Ajax FC under Dario Gasparotto, now a staff coach at FC Durham Academy. He then joined Vaughan Soccer Club where he worked closely with Patrice Gheisar.
He was recruited by Maryland, which was looking for a replacement for Zach Steffen, a U.S. international now with Manchester City.
St. Clair initially wore No. 9 (for his birthday) and then No. 17. At Maryland, both were taken so he chose No. 99. Forward Abu Danladi, now with Nashville, had that number when he joined Minnesota, so he opted to combine his two old numbers for No. 97 — which is also his birth year.
Minnesota (5-5-4) hosts FC Cincinnati (3-7-4) on Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press