His favorite moment on the pitch is not in the instant he has made an incredible save.
His favorite moment is not walking off with a shutout in his grasp.
His favorite moment is not to silence the jeers of the opposing fans, or out-shoulder an opposing poacher, or turning a threatening shot into just another deflection.
No, for Tampa Bay Rowdies’ goalkeeper Matt Pickens, the favorite moment of all is a slice of the game that comes in the moments following his standing up to a barrage. It is then that he can glance out, the ball in his hands, and see an opposing striker on his knees, pounding the ground in the frustration that Pickens has smothered a very good scoring chance.
He has solidified the Rowdies’ goalkeeping situation, given it a constant, a rock. Behind Pickens, and fellow goalkeeper Kamil Cantofalsky, the Rowdies have improved from a last-place tie in the NASL to second in goals allowed.
Granted, the last two weeks hurt. The Rowdies gave up a goal in extra time to lose to Pittsburgh, 1-0, in the U.S. Cup, and then a tying goal to the Indy 11 in extra time. Both shots were rockets, and neither was the fault of the keeper, but both hurt.
“It definitely cuts you down,” said Pickens, 33. “We’ve shown in previous weeks that we can battle through that and not let in those goals. Last week, we kind of strayed from that mentality. We caved in when it matters. At this level, you can’t get away with that. You’re going to get punished, and we got punished. That’s one thing we don’t want to start a trend with. That’s how last year went. We gave up late goals, and it killed us.”
His fault or not, Pickens says it’s a hard thing to look back and see the ball in the net.
“It’s not a fun feeling,” he said. “Whether it’s my fault, their fault or luck of the draw, it sucks when you have to pick the ball out of the back of the net. Those late goals hurt the most.”
For Pickens, it must seem particularly harsh. He took over in goal against Jacksonville and was brilliant, then recorded back-to-back shutouts. He seemed like he was on his way to his third straight against Pittsburgh.
It takes a special athlete to be a keeper, said coach Thomas Rongren.
“You’ve got to be a little bit crazy, I think.” Rongen said. “The abuse these guys take, the places they have to go where it hurts, when you know there is going to be contact. It takes a little bit of a different animal and a different personality.”
Pickens agrees. He’s a goalkeeper.
“I think it’s a position you have to have a certain personality and character to play. With my character, there is no way I could be a striker. My thing isn’t scoring goals. It’s seeing someone freaking pound the ground after I make a save. That’s me — see my guys proud of what we do. I’m a protector, a giver. Something in my nature. I like to look after people.”
“The other players want to see me on the ground ticked because I let in a goal. I can’t get up and run around and do a victory lap after I make a save. But I feel it.”
Rongen smiles. He says it was the Jacksonville game, when Pickens made three quick saves in a row, that caused the opposing striker to pound the ground.
A lot of goalies are that way, and not just in soccer. Pickens will tell you he feels a kinship with Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop. Like Pickens, Bishop is from St. Louis. Like Pickens, Bishop has been a victim of deflections and bad bounces on occasion.
“I know what it feels like,” Pickens said. “For any goalkeeper in a sport, that’s the way it is. You know what kind of effort it takes. You can appreciate it. You know what they’re going through, what they feel.”
This Saturday, when the Rowdies are home against Edmonton, he will also know what it is like to be on a team that is shorthanded. The Rowdies will be without their leading scorer, Maicon Santos, without the league’s top assist man, Giorgi Hristov , and without its most dependable defender, three-time team of the week member Stefan Antonijevic. Edmonton will be without leading point-scorer Lance Lang.
For the Rowdies, game time is 7:30 p.m. At Al Lang.