When Nashville SC goalkeeper Matt Pickens lands at Tampa International Airport today, the flashbacks will probably start.
That was where droves of Tampa Bay Rowdies supporters would come to greet Pickens and his teammates after road trips. Now, he’ll be going back there for the first time when Nashville SC takes on the Rowdies on Saturday night.
After seven years in the MLS, Pickens made his mark on the Rowdies and left the club in a better place than when he started. From 2014 to 2017, he made 112 appearances for the Rowdies, the most of any keeper in club history. Pickens also posted a whopping 28 clean sheets, a club record that likely won’t be touched for a long time.
Naturally, there will be some emotions when Pickens takes the field at Al Lang Stadium with a picturesque view of the St. Petersburg harbor in his sights.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the things that you have to do as a professional athlete is keep your emotions in check,” Pickens said. “I think I can appreciate the emotions. I can appreciate them, but I can control them to where I can need to turn them off and focus on the game. But, I did spend some good years there and have some good relationships there. I’ll definitely feel that for sure when I’m down there playing.”
When Pickens arrived with Tampa Bay in 2014, he had just finished an MLS stint that included an MLS Cup title with the Colorado Rapids and a brief stay with the New England Revolution. Coming into a new place in a different league, Pickens immediately felt a connection.
“I think what they’re doing down there is not only good for the USL, but it’s also just good for the American soccer landscape in general,” he said. “You’ve got an owner that puts a lot into it, a lot of financial resources, a lot of time, a lot of effort goes into the club down there, and it’s nice to see. It’s nice to see for anybody that’s involved in the American soccer landscape. They’re heading in the right direction. They’re doing everything very professionally down there, almost as professional as it really gets.”
The team languished in the NASL in Pickens first few years, undergoing coaching and personnel changes, but once they made the jump to the USL in 2017, things changed rapidly. The Rowdies finished third in the Eastern Conference, easily qualifying for the postseason. In the first round, they knocked off the sixth-seeded FC Cincinnati with a dominant 3-0 performance before falling 2-1 to the defending champs New York Red Bulls II in a tight clash.
It was also a great season for Pickens personally. He posted 10 clean sheets in 30 starts, helping lead them to that second-round playoff berth.
That success, along with the support of an incredible fanbase, made the decision to jump to the expansion Nashville SC that much tougher. The fans supported Pickens from the moment he arrived. The fans were in awe of his skills and his glorious beard. When he played his 100th match in a Rowdies shirt, the fans unveiled a tifo with his face on it that read “Fear the Beard.”
The atmosphere in “Florida’s Sunshine City” still shines on Pickens today.
“The fanbase down there in Tampa, they welcomed me with open arms and they closed them shut when I left,” Pickens said. “They didn’t want me to go and they tried to hold on as long as they could. I felt it, I felt every little bit of their motivation during games when we’re on the road and then also when we came back from a lot of the road games we had good support at the airport coming home, they would visit us as well. They’re very dedicated down there, they’re very dedicated to the cause down there, they’re dedicated to the players win, lose or draw and that's what you want as a player.”
When Pickens takes the field on Saturday night, he’ll see some familiar faces on the other side wearing Rowdies green. Aside from the emotions of facing his former club, he’ll have some comfort in his familiarity with the field and the atmosphere.
“I’ve played a lot of games on that field,” he said. “I’ll be very comfortable in that game. I know the area well, I know the atmosphere very well there, so I think it’s familiar territory for me that I need to go down there and get the job done. Playing against guys that I know very well as well, so I know a lot of tendencies and just whatever they can bring at us, I know a lot of that. I’ve seen it a lot. Very familiar, very comfortable.
Even with those ties to Tampa Bay, Pickens’ heart beats for the blue and gold now. There’s no doubt about it.
“I’m going to enjoy the game, enjoy the moment,” he said. “I’m going to go down there and do my best to bring back three points for Nashville SC and enjoy the rest of the emotions later.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 CT. The match will be broadcast locally on MyTV30 and 94.9 Game 2. It will also be streamed nationally on ESPN+.