BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Breaking into a team at the goalkeeper position is no easy thing to do.
While field players can grab substitute minutes or feature more during squad rotation, goalkeepers don’t get those kind of chances as frequently. As a result, some keepers can go years without getting a solid run of games.
That was the story for Patrick McLain for much of the beginning of his career. After playing collegiately at California Polytechnic State University he landed with former Major League Soccer club Chivas USA in 2012. His first MLS appearance came the following season.
McLain spent the next two seasons in the lower-level United Soccer League before landing with the Chicago Fire in 2016. His only appearance with the Fire that year came in the season finale.
During the following offseason the Fire declined his option, but Orlando City claimed him in the MLS Re-entry Draft. He was shipped to Minnesota in another deal, but didn’t play for the Loons in 2017.
McLain then rejoined the Fire in 2018. Six years after joining MLS, he had made three appearances, only two of which were starts.
Had doubt creeped in for McLain that he would ever get a chance to prove himself on the field?
“I’d be lying if I said no, but I want to be able to tell my kids that I didn’t quit,” McLain said. “I just want to keep doing the right things on the field, off the field, and that’s what I’m about.”
He was given a chance May 26 against Orlando. McLain made five saves in a 2-1 road win, the first win of his MLS career.
“It was an encouraging moment for me and I was happy that I could contribute and help the team on the field, and that was what was most important to me,” McLain said.
McLain was rewarded with two more starts in a row after that. It appeared he may have emerged as the Fire’s starting goalkeeper with incumbent starter Richard Sanchez having a mistake-prone season.
In his third consecutive start, bad luck — with worse timing — struck. McLain left the June 2 home match against San Jose with a hamstring injury late in the first half.
“The hamstring injury that I had came at a really unfortunate time for me for a couple reasons,” McLain said. “The team was doing well and I think we were clicking, and it was just an unfortunate thing. It was frustrating for many reasons.”
McLain said he initially expected the injury to keep him out for four or five weeks. Instead, he didn’t return to the field until Sunday in Atlanta, more than four and a half months since the injury.
“I think we maybe rushed it a bit and that’s what led to the re-injury,” McLain said. “Hamstrings are tough, man. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in there. We have MRIs, we have all the tools, but sometimes you just don’t know.”
McLain came up with four saves in the 2-1 Atlanta loss. It’s unclear what his role may be for the Fire going forward, but returning to the field was significant after dealing with the long injury.
“It was great to be back on the field, and I’m thankful that I got that vote of confidence again,” McLain said.
The season finale is Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET against D.C. United. If McLain starts, it will be his final chance to make an impression on the Fire front office before the offseason.
There isn’t much certainty at goalkeeper for the Fire heading into the offseason. Sanchez is under contract for next year, but the decision to move to McLain in the first place was telling. Second-year goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland made five MLS starts in McLain’s absence, all coming since August.
McLain is a 30-year-old journeyman who may have missed out on his chance to solidify his spot. At the same time, this may be the best position he’s been in heading into an offseason.
“That’s for the people who make these decisions to decide,” McLain said of his future with the Fire. “I’m just going to keep doing what I do to the best of my abilities.”