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May 2, 2009

Pickens bounces back from his failed European adventure

When Matt Pickens suited up for Colorado in the Rapids' 2-1 loss to Chivas USA back in the March 21 season opener, it was his first competitive match since 2007.

For the past two years, the former Chicago Fire goalkeeper has taken the road less traveled, bouncing around from trials and clubs in Europe. Such adversity is nothing new for Pickens.

After junior college, Pickens graduated from Southwest Missouri State and was drafted by the Fire in the second round of the 2004 MLS SuperDraft. Having spent the previous three seasons with the Fire's PDL squad, Pickens was a known quantity to the Fire coaching staff, who would initially send him on loan to the USL.

After returning to the team in 2005, Pickens would receive his chance to start a year later when incumbent Zach Thornton was injured. After filling in and impressing with his shot-stopping skills, Pickens made the spot his own. In 2007, the Fire traded Thornton away (ironically to the Rapids) to cement Pickens' status.

"Often times when young players get the opportunity to step in and contribute, they fail because the moment gets to them, put too much pressure on themselves, or perhaps they have a run of bad luck. Matt was able to make the most of his opportunity and run with it," said Diego Gutierrez, a former teammate on the Fire. "When his moment came, he stepped up, played with confidence, made saves that were both routine and extraordinary, and made his teammates better. With the goalkeeper position, you want someone who projects confidence to your team, and Matt was able to that and more."

In 2007, Pickens allowed a paltry 1.15 goals per game in his first full season (which included a consecutive scoreless streak of 246 minutes), as Chicago advanced to within one game of the MLS Cup. His position in Chicago seemed secure and his reputation as a rising star in MLS was cemented. Most young players would have been content. However, for a man nicknamed "Slim Pickens" by the Fire fans, it just wasn't enough.

"I think the goal of every young goalkeeper is to prove himself in Europe," Pickens said about the next stage of his career. "I knew for awhile that's where I wanted to go."

He just wasn't expecting to pack up his suitcase quite so much.

It all started in late 2007 with Norwich City, a Championship club in England that was looking for a goalkeeper to challenge their No. 1. That trial didn't work out, but he then landed with another Championship side, Queens Park Rangers, in February 2008. It was here that he would stick, eventually signing a deal with the full knowledge that he would be a reserve player. Pickens was fine with this, figuring that it would give him a chance to get acclimated and most importantly, a chance to improve himself.

"Then I hurt my shoulder," Pickens said. "I didn't know how bad it was 'til after the season. It really threw things off."

Amidst all this uncertainty, Queens Park signed a former Premier League goalkeeper. With playing time uncertain, Pickens asked for his release. He figured that it'd be more ideal to find another club than be mired on the bench. This is where his frequent-flier miles would kick in.

Between August and November of 2008, Pickens would spend a week on trial with Hibernian in Scotland. This was followed by a stint in northern England -- "once you get outside of London the food gets a bit questionable," Pickens said -- for a training period of two weeks with Doncaster and then with Nottingham Forest, where a deal appeared close but ultimately was never finalized.

Undeterred, Pickens embarked on a trial with Scotland's Falkirk, before heading back to the United States in November. With the U.S. in the midst of preparing for a World Cup qualifier against Guatemala in Denver, head coach Bob Bradley called the goalkeeper into camp. Bradley's no stranger to Pickens' ability -- he was coach of the Fire when Pickens was playing with the Fire's PDL team.

It was Pickens' stint in Denver that would ultimately lead him to his current team. With the Rapids showing interest in signing him, Pickens used the occasion to find out as much as possible about Colorado. With several Rapids on the U.S. training camp roster (Conor Casey, Ugo Ihemelu and Pablo Mastroeni), Pickens picked their brains.

"They had nothing but good things to say about the organization, the facilities and the team," Pickens said. "They also were optimistic about their new coach [Gary Smith], whom they felt was doing some good things."

One player especially eager to talk up the Rapids was central defender Ihemelu, who had no problems placing a few words in the ears of the man he hoped would eventually become his goalkeeper.

"Ugo told me all about the team," Pickens said. "He was telling me about the coach and had some really good things to say. It's always what you want to hear, as a player, when a fellow player has something good to say about their coach."

With both parties sold, the Rapids traded with the Fire for the rights to Pickens on Jan. 15.

For Colorado coach Gary Smith, Pickens fit the profile of what he was looking for.

"I think Matt offered up all the qualities we were looking for in a goalkeeper. Good size, very athletic, good age and potential still to be achieved. He had experience in MLS so we could look back at that and see how he coped," Smith said. "The fact that he had been working with the national team as well was also another positive. The fact that he became available at the right time for us worked out. We both came together at the right time and the right place."

It would be easy to chalk up much of the past two years of Matt Pickens' life as a waste. After all, he never became a starter in England and he was on the raw end of the deal at several of his stops on the way. However, through injuries and trial after trial, Pickens always retained his work ethic, something he will always carry around with him, literally. Last year, Pickens got a tattoo on his left shoulder blade, a little bit of ink inspired by the frustrations of a difficult and challenging year. It's an Arabic symbol, though he won't go into much more detail than that. He will simply state that it is deeply personal to him and bred from the experiences of a year that saw him constantly have to prove his worth. It's a testament to his resiliency and inner growth.

"It's about everything that I've gone through," Pickens said. "It's a reminder of where I have been."

And judging by the confidence that those who know him best have in him, it's not where he's been, but where he's going.

"I think Matt will continue to be successful because he is a guy who sees things the way they are," Gutierrez said. "He gives credit to others and accepts responsibility when necessary."

But don't count on Pickens putting away his passport quite yet. True to form, he's chomping at the bit again.

"I do think there might be an opportunity for me to once again try in Europe," he said with a laugh. "Who knows? Maybe in a few years. I'm still young and I want to prove myself against the best. Maybe I'll get that chance again someday."

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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