NASHVILLE – As Nashville SC enters its first year as a Major League Soccer franchise, there is plenty for the group to learn. While many on the squad have experience in MLS, an entirely new set of players coming together has to become cohesive and prepare to achieve success on the field.
That means there is plenty of pressure on the goalkeepers, especially. There’s no position on the field that has the level of individual exposure on the field (and when it comes to criticism off it). Nashville SC has a solid mix of talent and experience on the roster as the season is set to begin.
Veteran Joe Willis has been Houston Dynamo’s starter over the better part of the past four seasons. 24-year old Adrian Zendejas came up through the under-20s of nearby Club Tijuana as a youngster in San Diego, and has been a member of the Sporting Kansas City organization for the past four years. SuperDraft pick Elliot Panicco was one of college soccer’s top keepers in 2019 – and an impressive enough prospect that Nashville traded up for an additional first-round pick in order to secure him in the Draft.
That trio is itching to get started and put a soccer product on the field after years of waiting for Nashville SC fans.
“Whenever you have an expansion team, it’s tough to know how that’s going to turn out,” Willis started, “but I think that’s the exciting part about it: we kind of control our own destiny, and we get to decide what type of team we’re going to be, and what type of mentality we’re going to have going into the season.”
“Mentality-wise, it’s very exciting,” Zendejas said. “It’s a big year for all of us: a fresh new start. We’re going to see where it takes all of us. We’re just ready to get on to preseason.”
The keepers will be led by Matt Pickens. After a playing career that spanned more than 15 years – not to mention three MLS teams, two second-division teams in the United States, and even a season with Queens Park Rangers in the English Championship – he hung up his gloves this off-season to transition into a life of full-time coaching. After serving as both starting goalie and position coach for Nashville SC over the past two seasons, he’ll focus on leading a group that has nothing but confidence in him.
“Matt Pickens is a legend, he’s been around the league all over the place,” Zendejas said. “Obviously he got goalkeeper of the year last year and made team of the year [in USL]. I know it’s his first year as a goalkeeper coach, so I think he’s going to adapt really well to that.”
“We’ve just kind of talked about how we want to play, what’s expected from the goalkeeping corps here,” Willis said of his conversations with Pickens. “I think Gary [Smith]’s a big proponent of defensive work, and I think that bodes well for goalkeepers. Whenever you can have everyone working as a unit to prevent goals, it makes our job easier. I think defense is going to be a focal point for our team, and I think that’ll help us be successful in the long run.”
The style of play should give an assist to the goalies, who have excelled in the past when well-protected by the defenders in front of them.
The Nashville SC technical staff is comprised of not only Smith and Pickens, but also assistants Brett Jacobs (a longtime Smith associate who assisted the USL team last year) and Steve Guppy (a former assistant of Smith’s with the MLS Cup-champion Colorado Rapids in 2010). As Nashville SC transitions to a new level, the goalkeepers at their disposal may have skillsets that haven’t been available to the staff, allowing for an evolution in style of play.
“Obviously Sporting Kansas City developed their own playing style, and I think I can bring that to Nashville,” Zendejas said. “Playing out of the back, I think I’m really comfortable playing with my feet, so I feel like if the coach ever needs to play out of the back, I’m really comfortable with that. I just think overall, it’s going to be exciting.”
Zendejas himself is largely inexperienced at the MLS level, with just one regular-season appearance and three in the US Open Cup for Sporting. The opportunity he had to keep his game fresh at the USL level with Swope Park Rangers (now known as Sporting Kansas City II) is one that should facilitate his transition into a potential larger role with Nashville.
“One of the good things that Sporting offered was having that USL team,” explained Zendejas. “I felt like I was always ready whenever my name was called. I just feel like as a goalkeeper, you always have to be mentally ready, because it’s such a mental game as a goalkeeper. Just being mentally ready, being physically ready: I think it’s something that I’m confident at. I’ve been the second goalkeeper for a couple years now, and I’m ready to take the next step.”
For now, there is little known about how the squad will perform on the field, and that includes the individual performances of the goalies. What isn’t in question, however, is the excitement around the city for the Boys in Gold to finally take the field. Getting onto the field at Nissan Stadium is something the players are eagerly anticipating.
“I think it’ll be exciting for us; there’s so much buzz around the team right now,” Willis said. “The energy is there, and we’re just hoping to put a good product on the field.”
Adrian Zendejas photo courtesy Sporting Kansas City