Image: Steve Aibel, LittleOrcaSports.com / Pitch Black News
It’s never easy being a backup goalkeeper. Despite all the hard work you put in during training, you sit on the bench for weeks, months, even years at a time waiting for your chance, then you’re between the pipes and called upon to be the last line of defense in the blink of an eye.
That’s where Matt Cardone found himself for San Antonio FC a few weeks ago after SAFC’s usual starting goalkeeper Josh Ford was sent off and subsequently suspended three games for his aggressive actions against Oklahoma City Energy FC on July 9.
For the first time in their history, SAFC would have someone other than Ford getting a run of games in goal. Finally, Cardone had a chance to truly apply all the hard work he does in training.
Cardone did have one appearance before this recent stretch as Ford was ill and ruled out of SAFC’s game against Rio Grande Valley FC on May 7. The night was forgettable for SAFC as the defense was carved apart and Cardone was fairly easily beaten for three goals, including a winner in stoppage time by Rob Lovejoy.
Over two months later, Ford’s suspension gave Cardone a second chance as he’d finish out July 9’s game after Ford was sent off and play a full 90 minutes against Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, Los Angeles Galaxy II and Swope Park Rangers.
Cardone’s first order of business was preserving the clean sheet for roughly twenty minutes at the end of the game against OKC. The opposing team made some puzzlingly defensive substitutions and the defense in front of Cardone shielded him well. In the end, his one significant action was to come out of his 18-yard box and clear a ball upfield. Otherwise, he wasn’t troubled much.
After that relatively comfortable cameo, Cardone and SAFC knew they had their work cut out for them at home against the top two teams in the United Soccer League’s western conference and away to another team competing with them for a playoff spot as the regular seasons winds to a close.
Bringing a watered-down squad to Texas and falling to RGVFC 4-0 just a few days earlier though, Vancouver didn’t pose as much of a threat as SAFC likely expected. With the defense in front of him staying solid, Cardone mostly just had to grab loose balls in the box and take a few goal kicks.
Cardone did face one tough test in that match though: a dubious penalty kick awarded early on following a light tussle between Miguel Salazar and Marco Bustos. Cardone got down low to his right to powerfully palm away Kyle Greig’s spot-kick, energizing the team and fans as well as nullifying the greatest threat to the clean sheet Cardone eventually secured.
Cardone and his teammates would not be so lucky the following game though as LA Galaxy II put three goals in the net, equaling the number RGVFC put past SAFC’s defense in Cardone’s first appearance of the season on May 7. LA also gave the SAFC defense similar problems to the ones they had against their Texan rivals a couple months earlier.
The result wasn’t necessarily indicative of SAFC’s play though. SAFC’s defense was usually able to shield Cardone well, but the league’s best offense proved why they’ve earned that title. In short, it wasn’t so much a case of SAFC being bad as it was LA being good, as they have been all season.
In particular, Cardone had nothing to be ashamed of regarding the goals he conceded. LA intricately carved SAFC open for the first goal, leaving Cardone hardly any time to react as the Villarreal brothers linked up devastatingly. Cardone later got down well to deny Jack McBean before the league’s top scorer precisely put the rebound into the top corner, out of Cardone’s reach, to double LA’s tally. The third saw Cardone wisely cover his near post before another pinpoint pass into the middle caught him and his defense a step or two behind.
Before Ford returned from suspension, Cardone got one more game in goal and his first ever on the road for SAFC. After conceding three early goals against LA the week before, Cardone and his defense let in two late against Swope Park Rangers.
Cardone couldn’t be blamed on the first as Dane Kelly’s header was well-placed and would be out of reach for goalkeepers with pedigrees greater than Cardone’s, including Ford. The second would be even more frustrating as Cardone made the initial save off a first-time shot by Tyler Pasher before the ball unluckily bounced into the path of Mark Anthony Gonzalez, who tapped home.
While this was another game where the defense wasn’t entirely bad, they did seem to run out of gas late in the game as they couldn’t get much going in attack and Swope Park relentlessly pressed and pressed, eventually being rewarded for their efforts.
This was perhaps Cardone’s best performance yet for SAFC though as, besides the two goals conceded, he made a club-record nine saves, beating Ford’s previous record of six. They weren’t all easy saves either with Cardone having to dive left and right to parry free kicks, make himself big to prevent a point-blank header on the stroke of halftime and react quickly to grab a low cross into the box after it took a slight deflection.
If there were ever a performance for Cardone to be proud of, it’s probably that one, despite the result. Though SAFC didn’t officially name a man of the match, Michael Reed is the only player who would even come close to challenging Cardone for that accolade after his hard-fought performance.
The results were tough, but the performances showed what Cardone can offer. He can return to the bench with his head held high, having nabbed the club’s first penalty save and setting a new record for saves in a single game while also doing the small-but-important things goalkeepers are asked to do and rarely recognized for.
Cardone’s shown he’s more than able to fill in when called upon, and he’s getting better and better in his still-young professional career. It’s not like he ever had much of a chance to surpass Ford in the pecking order, but he probably did better than most expected he would.