Darren Abate / USL
The book on Matt Cardone reads like fiction. The story unfolds like make-believe, each chapter turning more improbable than the next.
Who grows up dreaming of playing pro soccer and succeeds – without ever leaving his hometown?
Who volunteers at age 11 to play goalkeeper in a Catholic Youth Organization league and holds onto that position for 13 years, all the way through the United Soccer League?
Who attends a Division III school on the coach’s word that playing there won’t hamper your pro soccer ambition and sees the promise kept?
And who gets to learn under a fine goalkeeping coach in college, only to play for the same coach in the USL?
The narrative on Cardone is as eye-opening as that long, thick bush that hung from his chin, the one that inspired fans to cheer at games with fake beards.
Local boy makes good at MacArthur High School. Then becomes an All-American at Trinity University. Then plays for the San Antonio Scorpions. And when the Scorpions fold, the kid signs with San Antonio FC, and that’s when story gets really good.
“It’s crazy,” said SAFC coach Darren Powell.
Cardone agrees. “I never envisioned my career playing out the way it has,” he said.
Powell, 40, can’t remember the last time a kid played youth, high school, college, and pro soccer all in his hometown. “I don’t know how many times it’s happened,” said Powell, who has played and coached the pro game for 20 years. “But it puts Matt in a small category of players. It’s a really great story.”
Consider this twist: Cardone earned USL Player of the Week honors after starting the season on the bench. His opportunity came not because he outplayed Josh Ford, the starter and team captain. It came because Ford injured his shoulder blade during warmups.
On Aug. 17, Cardone replaced Ford and helped SAFC defeat Arizona United SC, 3-2. Ten days later, Cardone pitched a shutout, made seven saves in a 2-0 victory over Saint Louis FC and became the first player in SAFC history to win Player of the Week honors – and only the third goalkeeper to claim it last season.
Cardone started less than half the season – just 13 games – but still led the league with four penalty saves and the club with four shutouts.
“At the start of the year, he was the more inexperienced goalkeeper,” Powell said. “He was waiting his turn. When it came, he performed at a level we were fortunate to see every day.”
The second oldest of six children born to Paul and Ann Cardone, Matt was a natural athlete, excelling at baseball and other sports in his youth. A CYO coach needed a goalkeeper. Matt volunteered.
“I was about 11,” he said. Soccer soon became his focus. Matt starred on his club and high school teams and caught the attention of Trinity soccer coach Paul McGinlay.
McGinlay was a DIII coach pursuing a DI prospect. Matt had size (6-4), good feet, athleticism, decision-making skills, and tremendous potential. So McGinlay made a pitch: Apply to a national DIII power, and if other offers don’t materialize, come to Trinity.
“When we got him,” McGinlay said, “I thought, ‘Holy moly!’ I knew what we had.”
Matt posted 227 saves at Trinity, recorded 30 shutouts, was named first-team All-America in 2012 and 2014 and won All-Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference honors four times. In the off-season, he trained with the San Antonio Scorpions of the North American Soccer League.
After graduating with a degree in business, Matt signed with the Scorpions. He played until the franchise folded and moved to SAFC. As it turned out, his goalkeeping coach at Trinity, Juan Lamadrid, became his position coach with the Scorpions and then with SAFC. “It’s really great,” Matt said, “to have that continuity.”
Paul did not expect to see his son play at every level of soccer in San Antonio. “It’s been really good for us,” Paul said. “I’ve got no complaints. I hear it’s pretty unique. We have six kids. You never know where they are all going to go.”
Matt’s story recalls Devin Brown, a 6-5 guard who set the city scoring record at West Campus High, set the career scoring record at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and played two seasons for the Spurs.
There are some differences between the two narratives. Brown was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Matt in San Antonio. Brown started his pro career in Kansas with the Cagerz of the United States Basketball League. Then he bounced – from Kansas to the Spurs, where he was cut and resigned, to the Fayetteville Patriots of the NBA’s Development League, then to the Denver Nuggets and back to the Spurs. Brown later played for Utah, New Orleans, and Cleveland before ending his career with the D-League’s Erie BayHawks in Pennsylvania.
There are other differences between the local stars. Brown’s mother placed a toy hoop beside his crib when she brought him home from the hospital. Brown’s father put a tiny ball in his hands. Before mom completed her maternity leave, she took Brown to his father’s city league games so he could get used to the smell of a gym. In short, mom and dad raised little Devin to be a baller.
In 2002, after Brown’s first game as a Spur, his mother, Ann, marveled at the journey. “It’s a prayer come true,” she told me then.
Matt’s parents did not raise their son to play soccer. “He was pretty good at a lot of sports,” Paul said. “My wife is very athletic. All my kids got their talent from her. As Matt got older, you could tell he was better than average. He worked hard, really hard, at soccer. And every time I saw him play, he got better. I wish I could take credit. But I was just a spectator.”
The years flew by. One day, Paul and Ann’s second oldest was playing for the Scorpions, then SAFC and winning Player of the Week honors. They’d show up to games and chuckle at fans wearing fake beards. Matt did not care to shave. A bit superstitious, he was especially reluctant to grab a razor after a string of good games. So he just let the facial hair grow.
Then, to Paul’s surprise and joy, Matt shaved most of it off. “I’m old school,” Paul said. “I wasn’t crazy about the length. It was pretty rough-looking. I like it a lot better now.”
On Tuesday, Matt resigned with SAFC. Paul and Ann’s son gets to stay home and play – and with a much neater beard to boot.
McGinlay sees a long career ahead for Matt – 10, 11 more years, perhaps longer. It is not likely Matt will spend the rest of that time in San Antonio. But for now, mom and dad are happy, and so is SAFC.
If Matt Cardone has proven anything since he kicked his first soccer ball, it’s this: The young man is a keeper.