NASHVILLE – Where else to begin when starting a positional preview series than with the keepers. Each preview will take a look back at the position group as a whole last season, look at the players slated to play that position in 2019 and then get head coach Gary Smith’s thoughts on the group. One of the beauties about this season’s Nashville SC squad is versatility, so a number of players might shift positionally throughout the season. For example, last year attacking midfielder Lebo Moloto played some forward and some winger at various points of the season. On to the goalkeeper preview:
Position in Review
Many words have been written on this site about veteran Matt Pickens’ performance in net for Nashville SC last season, and yet, those words seem insufficient. Not only was Pickens was one of the best keepers in the USL Championship in 2018, he became Nashville’s first true soccer star in its inaugural season. Between the beard, the shouting to organize his lines and the incredible saves, Pickens endeared himself to fans early and often. His numbers were eye-popping: 14 clean sheets, a sub 1.00 goals against average, and 32 starts. Despite the eighth place Eastern Conference finish for Nashville SC, Pickens was named one of the league’s three finalists for Goalkeeper of the Year.
Because of the high-level play from Pickens, backup keeper CJ Cochran was rarely used and signed with USL Championship club Fresno FC this offseason.
Third string keeper Micah Bledsoe went unused throughout the season, and has moved on to USL League One side Tormenta FC.
The incumbent veteran is back as a player and as the club’s goalkeeper coach for a second season. The MLS Cup and U.S. Open champion, Matt Pickens, will turn 37 in 2019, but age seems to be just a number as Pickens looks to build off of his big 2018.
The other two keepers on the roster are new faces to Nashville SC this season. One of the most under-the-radar acquisitions for Nashville SC this offseason may have been 24-year-old keeper Connor Sparrow. Like Pickens, Sparrow hails from the Saint Louis area and comes with MLS experience. He featured in Real Salt Lake’s Open Cup game last season against Sporting KC and was a part of several 18’s for RSL during the 2018 season.
Rookie Danny Vitiello, out of Albany University, rounds out the Nashville SC keepers. This is Vitiello’s first professional season, but his numbers at Albany were impressive with 60 starts over four seasons. He was one of the main reasons why Albany advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in 2016 as he won 10 games and recorded a miniscule 0.97 GAA.
Gary Smith’s Thoughts on the Position
“In the initial glimpses of being around both [Connor Sparrow and Danny Vitiello]. They’re actually very different to Matt [Pickens] in terms of physical presence. I would class them as more of a modern-day goalkeeper. They’re nice size, but they’re very athletic, they’re quick, quick off their line, nimble on their feet, and extremely agile. That’s not to say that Matt’s not, but he’s got a much bigger, much stronger, and maybe a tad more physical presence to his game. I knew that before the two guys came in.”
Position Battle to Watch in Preseason
In 2018, it was almost a shoe-in that Matt Pickens would start every time he was available. This season might be a different story as Connor Sparrow brings MLS experience and solid USL numbers throughout the last few seasons. Both have looked stellar in the early stages of the preseason, and it should be interesting to see how each performs in Nashville’s six preseason games. From a lineup perspective, this will be one of the most intriguing position battles on the field. Here is what head coach Gary Smith had to say on Pickens and Sparrow:
“Matt was terrific last year, I know everything I need to know about Matt, and in terms of where they sit in the grand scheme of things, we certainly want to be a team that are winning games, and there’s no drop-off whoever plays. I need to come to a bit of a conclusion in my mind as to what and how both guys be kept mentally and physically in the right place. I certainly want to be knowing what Connor’s capable of. So therefore, he needs games. He needs minutes, and he’ll certainly get those. Planning and working out how those two guys have the season will be something that I can really come to terms with as we get towards the first game.”
Stay tuned as we preview the other positions this preseason for Nashville Soccer Club in the coming weeks!