Friday, February 23, 2018
Sports

For Rowdies fans, the Beard is a keeper

ST. PETERSBURG

There is much more to the Beard than the beard.

But come on. The sprawling, currently almost biblical display on goalkeeper Matt Pickens' chin has aptly earned him the moniker from Rowdies fans.

But it's his recent play that really has endeared him. Since joining Tampa Bay in 2014, off an accomplished MLS career, Pickens has emerged as the mainstay in goal.

More on that in a second. Back to the beard.

"I've always carried a beard, but this one … the last time I shaved it was November," he said.

Of 2014? It just looks that way.

"I went home to St. Louis and just kind of kept it there because it was so cold."

It doesn't hurt Pickens' cause that the look — and a 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame — gives him an intimidating edge. But his beard doesn't make saves, and Pickens has made plenty at key times. Only Jimmy Maurer of league-leading New York has more shutouts, with Pickens earning four in league play, and a fifth last week when the Rowdies knocked off FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup.

That victory gives Pickens and the Rowdies a shot against MLS Columbus Crew on June 15. Though some Rowdies might be a little intimidated, rest assured Pickens will not be. He won an MLS title with Colorado in 2010.

That MLS Cup victory over Dallas provided a career highlight. Colorado went ahead 2-1 in the second overtime but the goal scorer, Macoumba Kandji, tore his ACL on the play — a big problem as the Rapids had no more subs.

"It was one of the craziest things," Pickens recalled. "The whole last 10 minutes, holding the fort down, absorbing all that pressure. It was the most nervous I've been, with the magnitude of the game, waves and waves of pressure. Little bit hectic but … it was a fun little game."

That last line should make clear to Rowdies fans that Pickens can handle pressure, but his recent play has driven home the point. In the win over Cincinnati he made an amazing, change-of-direction sliding save to prevent a tying own goal. Tampa Bay's back line is much improved, but when it falters, Pickens has proven reliable.

"Overall defensively, the team's been great, and then when it comes to Matt in a one-versus-one situation, he's done really well," said coach Stuart Campbell. This year the Rowdies have conceded just eight times from nine contests, with Pickens needing to make just 16 saves.

Defense has been a big focus for Campbell, who took over for Thomas Rongen during a fall season that saw the Rowdies allow 28 goals in 20 games. In 2014, Pickens' first year with Tampa Bay, he started 24 games and the Rowdies allowed an unacceptable 50 across 28 contests.

As a result, the Rowdies brought in some competition in the form of fellow veteran Kamil Contofalsky, who led off as the starter but was supplanted by Pickens.

Even though he's 34, it looks like it may be a while before the Beard becomes the Graybeard.

"I'm no spring chicken anymore. But I eat well, rest well, stay away from the bad stuff," Pickens said. "I'm healthy, and if I can just keep my mind on the grind, I'll play for a while."

He's been doing it for a couple of decades, starting off at age 11 and quickly being drawn to goal.

"I had three older brothers (Jason, Ryan and Jonathan), so I didn't really have any say. They threw me in goal," Pickens said. His high school, St. Francis Borgia in Missouri, got as far as the state quarterfinals. After starting off at St. Louis Community College, Pickens ended at Southwest Missouri State.

The Bears took on nearby major competition from teams such as Saint Louis University, Bradley and Southern Methodist but they never reached the NCAA tournament, losing in the Missouri Valley Conference finals one season. He earned MVC recognition — and for his pro prospects, his offseason training with a Chicago PDL team earned him a trial with the MLS' Chicago Fire, which ended up drafting him.

"I always wanted to be a pro soccer player. The tryout was more exciting and fun for me. It wasn't about being nervous," he said.

His play leaves Rowdies fans less nervous these days. But the ones who love the beard might need to start worrying.

"I'm probably going to cut it when it starts getting hot," he said. "I don't do well in the heat, especially with all the gear I have on, and with the humidity it can really weigh you down. So that time's going to come here soon."

This is the latest installment in our summer series profiling the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

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