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VOL. 42 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 20, 2018

Face of the franchise

‘Fear the beard,’ love the goalie. SC fans find favorite in Pickens

By John Glennon

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Maybe it’s the beard. Maybe the longer it stays, the better he plays. Sure, the whole Samson-and-Delilah theory is an unlikely one when it comes to Nashville SC goalie Matt Pickens, but it’s at least one stab at explaining the continued success of the veteran keeper.

In a league filled primarily with young prospects looking to rise through the ranks, the 36-year-old Pickens is in the midst of another banner year, almost unquestionably the MVP of Music City’s expansion franchise halfway through the schedule.

He’s also quickly become a fan favorite, a designation Pickens also has held in his previous pro soccer stops. The Missouri native is the kind of player who makes supporters feel as if they’re part of the effort, applauding the pre-game chants of the Nashville SC faithful and mingling with the fans – win or lose – after the contests.

“Matt is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen in doing that sort of thing at the end of a match,” Nashville SC season ticket-holder Clay Trainum says. “He’ll be out there for 15 or 20 minutes sometimes, making sure he gets photos with the kids who want pictures taken with him – and the people who are kids at heart that want pictures taken with him as well, of course.”

Pickens has recorded nine shut-outs in Nashville SC’s first 17 games, a figure that ranks tied for first in the United Soccer League. He’s also stopped 46 of 57 shots this season, posting an 80.7 save percentage that tops the league.

Not too shabby for a player of any age, let alone Pickens, who is one of just two players on Nashville SC’s 26-man roster that are over 30 years old. Pickens is three years older than defender Kosuke Kimura, who is the second-oldest player on the team.

“He keeps himself in great shape, he works hard every day, he’s got a very clean lifestyle and he’s very driven for someone his age,” Nashville SC coach Gary Smith says. “He’s the consummate professional. So I’m not surprised he’s playing as well as he is.

“This team is growing and Matt is growing right along with it. I think if you ask him, he’s probably got a new lease on life. He’s in a new environment and he’s really enjoying it.”

‘A bit of a madcap individual’

We have to address the beard issue right up front, because that’s the first thing one notices about Pickens on the field, even before he can be heard barking orders at his defense.

Big, brown and seemingly formidable enough to stop a penalty kick on its own, Pickens’ beard first began to take shape when he left Missouri State in 2003. It’s held the line for the better part of the last eight years, which have seen Pickens excel in Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League and now the USL.

“I prefer that look over a clean-shaven face,” Pickens says. “Don’t care so much for razors.”

Smith attributes the wall of whiskers to a keeper’s typical quirks, similar to those of netminders that stop pucks in the NHL.

“He’s like all goaltenders,” Smith says. “He can be a bit of a madcap individual at times. You don’t grow a beard as long as Matt’s if you’re not a little bit mad.”

Adds Nashville SC fan Amy Cofer: “That beard has to stay. It’s a trademark. I don’t think we would recognize him without it. I think it’s his good-luck charm.”

The beard may make Pickens the most instantly recognizable Nashville SC player, but it’s his interaction with fans that has really endeared Pickens to the lively and vocal “Nashville Roadies” fan group that populates the stadium sections closest to the field.

“He definitely loves our chants – he makes it known that he hears us,” Cofer says. “He kind of makes us feel like we’re not just fans, but that he actually cares and we’re kind of part of the team.”

Time for a change

Let’s face it, though: Nashville SC made Pickens the first signing in franchise history for more than his face and his fan base. He brings a number of attributes to Music City’s first-year club.

One is experience, as Pickens spent the better part of 10 seasons in MLS, serving as the starting goalie for Colorado in 2010 when the Rapids – coached by Smith – won the league championship.

Pickens has also been called into camp for the U.S. national team five times, though he didn’t play in any games.

Nashville SC goalie Matt Pickens lays out to make a save during a 1-1 draw in June against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at St. Petersburg, Florida.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of J. Wilkinson And Nashville Sc

The 6-foot-3, 201-pound goalie spent the past five years in Tampa Bay of the NASL, piling up tremendous numbers and becoming a fan favorite. Supporters of the Rowdies nicknamed Pickens “The Beard,” and to celebrate his 100th game there, unveiled a tifo – a choreographed display in which fans raise cards to form a large image – with his face on it that read “Fear the Beard.”

Pickens could have chosen to stay with Tampa Bay, which this year moved to the USL.

But he decided instead to jump ship to Nashville SC, citing his relationship with Smith, the opportunity to become a player-coach, the chance to move closer to his Missouri roots, and the desire to re-charge the batteries.

“I kind of wanted a change of scenery,” Pickens says. “I kind of feel like personally with myself, if you stay in one place for a very long time, things start to get a little bit stagnant. In this business, you need to freshen things up every few years and that’s kind of how I felt. The timing was right.”

An inspiring presence

Pickens has recorded plenty of highlight moments this season.

There was, for instance, the pair of saves he made in quick succession – the first on a direct kick – against Bethlehem Steel in Nashville SC’s third game, preserving his team’s first inaugural victory.

There were the five big saves he made against his old club, Tampa Bay, when Nashville SC earned a challenging 1-1 tie on the road last month.

“I definitely think he’s been the MVP so far, especially in the early going when the team was still trying to find itself in terms of identity,” Trainum says. “When you’re still trying to figure out your identity going forward, to have such a good stalwart at the back makes things a little easier to adjust and keep pace with the rest of the league as you get out of first gear.”

Smith recalls a close-range save Pickens made on a header against Penn FC last month, a stop that preserved a 1-0 lead at the time and helped Nashville SC record a 3-1 victory.

“He’s been great,” Smith says. “He’s just been that individual that’s inspired a lot of the guys at important times. In a new group, I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Pickens has played every minute of every USL game for Nashville SC, which has allowed just 11 goals against in 17 games, the second-fewest in the league.

“If you look at it from a simplistic angle, yeah, it’s probably one of the better years I’ve had in my career – so far,” Pickens says. “But a lot of that has to do with the way that we play and the guys in front of me, the style we play, the personalities that are out on the field, the athletic bodies on the field. That all ties into what I’m doing as well. It’s hard for me to look at it from just that perspective of myself.”

Pickens’ blend of excellence and experience allows him to be a vocal leader for Nashville SC, an opportunity from which he doesn’t shy. The fiery goalkeeper makes plenty of noise in net, especially when he finds Nashville SC’s defensive play wanting.

“What he’ll know as an experienced goalkeeper is that if he’s overworked, there’s something going wrong,” Smith says. “If he’s having to pull off saves regularly, then the guys in front of him are not pulling their weight. He certainly lets them know about that. I think that’s an important ingredient to have in a group.”

Until the wheels fall off

Pickens says he gets a kick out of playing with so many youthful teammates on the Nashville SC team.

A full 20 of the 26 players on the club’s roster are at least a decade younger than Pickens, including talented forward Ropapa Mensah, who is only 20. Pickens provides natural guidance for the next generation, but also appreciates new approaches to practices and games that youngsters can bring.

He draws the line, however, in one off-the-field aspect.

“The whole social media thing – I don’t have any of that stuff,” Pickens says. “I don’t have any of those platforms and that’s a huge part of some peoples’ lives.

“But I respect that, and if that’s the way they want to do things, then you’ve got to let them do it. If that’s what brings them joy in life, then more power to them.”

Pickens has different priorities away from the pitch, most notably devoting time to his wife, Loubna, and the couples’ two children, Sofyan and Kameliah. Loubna is of French descent, and Pickens says the children may eventually become dual citizens.

“We have cultured kids and that’s the way the world is headed,” Pickens says. “You have to open your eyes up to the new way of life, and I’m living it. Maybe one day they’ll play for either the U.S. or for France.”

In the meantime, Pickens just keeps rolling along with no desire to retire.

“I plan to keep going as long as I can,” Pickens says. “As long as I am able to keep up with the boys, I’ll keep playing until the wheels fall off.”

Or the whiskers.

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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