Ralph’s Mob doesn’t cheer for opposing players, but expect Nashville SC goalkeeper Matt Pickens to get a warm welcome when he returns to Al Lang Stadium on Saturday to take on his former club.
Pickens, nicknamed the “The Beard” by Rowdies supporters, made 107 appearances in goal from 2014 to 2017 before joining Nashville SC this season. He is one of five players to make more than 100 appearances for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in its modern era.
Ralph’s Mob honored Pickens’ 100 appearance milestone on Aug. 5, 2017 with a special tifo adorned with his face and the message “Fear The Beard” and the number 100.
It hasn’t taken long for Nashville’s supporters’ groups to fall in love with Pickens. After key saves, they sing “There’s only one Matt Pickens! Only one Matt Pickens! He saves to the left, he saves to the right, Matt P is [really] dynamite!” [to the tune of Winter Wonderland] after each important shot block at First Tennessee Park. Wherever Pickens has played he’s been a fan favorite.
Pickens told the USL’s Ncholas Murray he is thankful to the Tampa Bay Rowdies organization and its fans for his time at the club.
“My time playing for Tampa Bay Rowdies is something that I am extremely grateful to have experienced,” Pickens said after leaving Tampa for Nashville. “That club has taken great strides forward the four years I was playing there and the perspective of seeing the city grow behind the team down there was absolutely amazing.
“The effort and dedication Bill Edwards has put into the club has been tenfold,” Pickens continued. “My experience playing for the Rowdies was extremely enjoyable and I have nothing but positive feelings about my time there. The players, coaches and staff in Tampa Bay are first-class people which made it a pleasure every day there for me.”
Pickens will see a lot of familiar faces on the other side of the field. His former center back in Tampa, Neil Collins, was recently named the Rowdies head coach. Collins has called Pickens a “leader and organizer” along with being a “fantastic shot stopper” on the field.
“When football players make landmark appearances like 100, it says a lot about their work ethic and professionalism,” Collins said last season when Pickens was approaching the century mark. “To make 100 appearances at one club shows that you put in performances at the level that you keep getting picked.”
Collins lays out a lot of the reasons Pickens was the first player recruited by Nashville’s staff for its inaugural USL season. He’s been a strong leader on and off the pitch and at 36 years of age he hasn’t slowed down.
Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith said Pickens was the first player signed to “set the standard and hold others accountable.” The numbers tell us he’s setting a league-wide standard for proficiency in net.
Pickens is Having a Golden Glove-Worthy Season
Pickens is having a career year in front of net for Nashville saving 80 percent of the shots he’s faced. His six clean sheets are tied for best in the league and he’s only allowed seven goals in 11 games. This puts Pickens on pace for only 28 goals allowed this season and a ridiculous goals-against average of 0.63.
How does this goals-against average stack up historically in the USL? Tomas Gomez won back-to-back Golden Glove awards with a goals-against average of 0.69 and 0.73 in 2016 and 2017 for the Rochester Rhinos.
Compare this to last season for the Rowdies, when Pickens played 2,804 minutes before being knocked out of the USL playoffs by the New York Redbulls II. He kept 10 clean sheets, saved 67 percent of shots faced, allowed 37 goals and posted a 1.19 goals-against average.
Give credit to Nashville’s back line for limiting an opponents’ ability to create quality scoring chances, but if Pickens is able to sustain this level of play for the rest of the season he should walk away with the Golden Glove award for best goal keeper in the USL.
Pickens is currently on a one game winning streak against his former clubs after Nashville defeated the Colorado Rapids 2-0 on Wednesday in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup. Pickens also made more than 100 career appearances for the Rapids and helped an MLS Championship in 2010.
If Pickens starts on Saturday and is able to get back-to-back shutouts against a former club, those early cheers from Rowdies fans could turn into silence.