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Milestone in reach for Rowdies' Matt Pickens

By Darek Sharp, Times Correspondent
CHARLIE KAIJO | Times
Rowdies goalkeeper Matt Pickens (18) catches a corner kick in the second half during the game between Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Charleston Battery at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Saturday, Jul 22, 2017. Rowdies beat Battery 2-0

ST. PETERSBURG — He's no gray beard yet, but Matt Pickens has been around a while as far as pro athletes go. And at age 35, he's still going plenty strong.

On Saturday night, his longevity will place Pickens at a plateau that few modern-day Rowdies have reached. Pickens, assumed to be the starter again in goal when Tampa Bay hosts Harrisburg City, will be playing his 100th match in Tampa Bay colors.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Al Lang.

"It's tremendous," Rowdies coach Stu Campbell said of Pickens, also known as "The Beard" for pretty obvious reasons. Pickens' beard has hit the foot mark.

The mark Pickens hits Saturday is just as impressive, albeit one he's reticent to discuss.

"I'm not one of those guys that likes to talk about things before they happen, kind of a jinx thing, don't want to touch it too much," Pickens said. "But it's great. Personally it's a big thing for me."

Pickens, who had stints with MLS Chicago and Colorado before joining Tampa Bay for the 2014 season, has plenty of teammates more willing to espouse his virtues.

"It's special and it's an honor," says forward Martin Paterson. "You've got to keep yourself very fit … and keep on top of people that are in your spot. I've known him for a short period but I can tell he's an excellent professional, excellent goalkeeper and thoroughly deserves his 100 appearances."

Defender Tam Mkandawire has played with Pickens through his Tampa Bay stay and is his road roommate.

"I think this means a hell of a lot to him. He's managed to stay here for four seasons, which says a lot about him and how hard he works," said Mkandawire.

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Speaking earlier this week Pickens was more concerned with keeping Tampa Bay's late run of form going.

The only thing keeping Tampa Bay from a four-match win streak, and all shutouts at that, was a 95th-minute penalty kick at Orlando City B that resulted in a 1-1 draw.

"We're trending, so we want to keep that trend going," Pickens said. "When you're winning games, it almost seems easy to win now, because you know what to do and you just feel confident. Vice versa when you're losing it's so hard to find that win. Right now we're on the upside of that and we want to keep that rolling. Once you get a bump in the road, that can stop pretty quick."

Harrisburg City comes in on a three-match winless streak, most recently gaining a scoreless draw at OCB that has the Islanders in a three-way tie for eighth place and the last playoff spot in USL's Eastern Conference.

Tampa Bay has ascended to the fourth spot, but could be tied for first with a win Saturday. Leader Charlotte (37 points) is at last-place Toronto, and the two teams sitting ahead of the Rowdies (9-5-7, 34 points) face each other with Louisville at Charlotte Saturday.

Paterson, who had what would been a goal in a fourth straight game wiped out by a foul ("In my mind I scored," he said), knows the best way for things to play out Saturday: have Pickens make Game No. 100 another victory.

"I know he'll be desperate to get the win. And a shutout to mark it."