Rapids' Pickens embraces role as secret weapon

TORONTO – Kevin Hartman is back on the MLS Cup scene this weekend for the fifth time in his storied career, seeking a third crown to help punctuate perhaps the most accomplished goalkeeping career in league history.

Matt Pickens, meanwhile, is better known for his beard. And that’s just fine with him.

Pickens and the Colorado Rapids take on Hartman and FC Dallas in the MLS Cup at BMO Field in Toronto on Sunday (8:30 pm ET, ESPN, Galavisión, TSN2), but it’s Pickens who is the decided underdog when it comes to the men in net.

“I am totally, totally fine with that,” Pickens said. “If people don’t talk about me, that’s great. That means our whole form, our whole defensive unit is solid, and that’s what we’re after. I’m fine if nobody’s mentioning me.”

[inline_node:323701]Pickens will make his MLS Cup debut after narrowly missing a shot at the big show in 2007 as a wide-eyed 24-year-old in just his first full season as the starting goalkeeper the Chicago Fire. He promptly lobbied his breakout season in 2006 and the follow-up year to take a shot in Europe, where he bounced around in the English Championship and Scotland, never quite finding the niche he carved out in MLS.

Pickens returned stateside to a Chicago team satisfied with starter Jon Busch, and a trade sent him to Colorado before the 2009 season. Injuries and some bouts of sour form limited him to just 19 starts last season before he emerged as the No. 1 man this year, earning a career-high in starts and, more importantly, wins.

He’s grown a well-publicized 6-inch goatee since then and quietly gone about his business in Colorado, where he’s been a valuable, if not underrated, part of the Rapids’ impressive and unexpected run to Toronto.

“That year [in Europe] for him had a bearing in a couple of injuries he had last year and a little dip in form,” Rapids head coach Gary Smith said. “But I think he’s become so much more consistent, and that’s probably come with being fit, playing regularly and being the first choice on a consistent basis.”

“The only thing he hasn’t got going for him,” Smith added, “is that silly beard.”

The last time Pickens played on such a big stage was in 2007, when the Fire rode a then-franchise record 10 shutouts from Pickens past top-seeded D.C. United into the Eastern Conference Championship against the New England Revolution. But that match inevitably belonged to Taylor Twellman, who skied for a bicycle kick in the first half and whistled the shot past Pickens and to the far post, sending the Revs to MLS Cup.

Pickens, for one, wasn’t sure what came next. But his year in Europe and another season in 2009 spent finding his feet with the new franchise taught him a few lessons about opportunities and the rare chance to seize the moment when it arrives.

“With a playoff game like that, you just never know when that’s going to come around again,” Pickens said. “This opportunity may never arise for me; there are no guarantees. I want to treat this game pretty preciously.”

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