Matt Pyzdrowski is one of the many adding to the testimony of American goalkeepers' greatness. After flying under the radar through most of his time in school and going undrafted, he has now ascended to Sweden's premier league, Allsvenskan with Helsingborgs IF. Matt recounts who inspired him to pursue professional soccer, his bittersweet time with Portland, and how he wound up at one of the top clubs in Sweden.
How young were you when you realized you wanted to be a professional goalkeeper?
It started out as wanting to be a professional basketball player. I grew up in the heyday of the Chicago Bulls. They won six championships before I was twelve. Michael Jordan was all I knew. I wanted to be like Mike just like every other kid in Chicago in the mid ‘90s. I was pretty good, could have had a nice four years at a DIII school, but I realized that soccer was my calling when I was sixteen. I gave up basketball, baseball and football to focus solely on soccer. From my sixteenth birthday on, I knew I wanted to be a professional soccer player.
What was your development like as a goalkeeper in the US? Who or what helped the most?
Doug Cardosi was my first goalkeeper coach with my youth club, Hinsdale USA. We met when I was roughly fourteen years old and worked two times a week early on, since I was playing so many different sports at the time. Doug was very much a part of my decision to only play soccer. He has seen plenty of me with my youth team, ODP and individual sessions as a coach. He was one of the first people who really believed in me. It was also Doug and Stan Anderson's relationship that got me recruited to play in college in the first place.
Stan Anderson? How does he fit into this story?
It all started at an ODP event in early 2004. I was playing for Illinois and we were taking on Wisconsin. I don't remember at what point of the game the save happened or what the score was. All I remember was the sequence. There was a dipping cross swung in from the right flank. It connected on the forwards head and was heading for the top corner. I remember thinking there was no chance I was going to make this save but I took one step back and pushed as hard as I could. I managed to tip the ball over the bar and out for a corner. I got up and all I heard was this very loud man, clapping while running down the sideline towards my end, screaming, "Fantastic save! Fantastic save! Well done, kid! Well done!" That man was Stan Anderson.
I wasn't even one of Stan’s players but he still reacted this way. He appreciates and respects the position as much as anyone I've ever met in my life. After the game, Stan went directly to my goalkeeper coach at ODP, Doug Cardosi. They talked for a few minutes and the next thing I knew Stan was watching every game I played the rest of the weekend. Doug recommended that I go to Camp Shutout that following summer, allowing Stan to get a closer look at me. Of course I attended and after that week Stan was sold. I had a scholarship offer from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Stan coached at the time. My experience with Stan was the selling point for me. I knew there wasn't another college coach in the country I wanted to work with.
Towards the end of my freshman season at UWM, which I redshirted that year and sat behind a goalkeeper who lead the nation in GAA, Stan told me, "Pyz, if you continue to work your backside off and give this sport everything you have you will go pro." I smiled and thanked him for the compliment and as I started to turn my head he grabbed my hand very firmly and looked me in the eye and said, "Pyz, you will be a professional." That is still one of the most surreal moments of my life. I always believed it but having someone else believe it as much as I did still gave me chills. Working with Stan every day at Marquette, where I transferred after my freshmen year, for four years is the main reason I made it to the professional ranks. He pushed me every single day and got the most out of me, especially in those days when I thought I would have much rather been somewhere else.
You were only at Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a year and then you switched to Marquette. What didn’t you like at UWM and why Marquette?
I initially chose UWM because Stan Anderson and [UWM Head Coach] Louis Bennett were there. I wanted to learn from them, be a part of their programs, and hopefully become a professional. I believed they were the ones most capable of helping me achieve my goals. They had built UWM into one of the Midwest's most consistent programs, going to the NCAA Tournament five years in a row and consistently winning tournament games. I loved everything about the school, the team, the academics, and the social life. At the time it was absolutely the right fit.
After my first semester Louis and Stan wanted to take the next step in their respective careers and took on the challenge that was Marquette Soccer. I suddenly didn't feel like I fit in anymore at UWM because they were gone. That is the danger of college athletics. You put your trust into coaches and their program and believe they will be there for your four years. In reality, just like in the professional game, it's a business and coaches have to make the best decisions for themselves and their families all the time. When they made the switch I knew I wanted to follow and luckily they wanted me to come with. Once I heard those words my mind was made up; I was transferring to Marquette.
Again this was all about timing, if I had been a rising junior or senior, I don't know if transferring would have been the best option. However, for me the timing lined up perfectly. I redshirted my freshman year and therefore had a fresh start and four seasons of soccer at Marquette. Even though Marquette weren't very good it was a time, I wouldn't change it for anything. It taught me patience and I built a ton of character. Without learning to deal with adversity every day, I don't know if I would have made it abroad. I gained plenty of experience essentially being thrown into the fire my freshman year. Marquette was completely rebuilding and it was going to take time. It ended up being six years until MU made it into a college soccer success story. While I wasn't there for that, I’m very proud of being a part of foundation that led them to where they are today.
[In 2012, Marquette made the NCAA tournament as a seven seed and returned again in 2013.]
Earlier you mentioned Stan’s goalkeeping camp, Camp Shutout. What kind of camp is it and what makes it so special?
This is without a doubt the best goalkeeper camp in the country. I had been to most of the big ones growing up and nothing compares. It has grown leaps and bounds since my first year attending but the core principles remain the same. It's a family and everyone there looks out for each other. [Camp Shutout had 60 goalkeepers in 2004 and over 300 in 2014.]
Camp Shutout is where I met some of my best friends in life, including the best man at my wedding, Jamie Lieberman. So when people say it is family, it really is for me. It’s also where Stan and I really began our relationship. Camp Shutout was a great opportunity for me because it allowed Stan and numerous other college coaches to see what I could bring to their programs every day. I believe without Camp Shutout, I don't get a college scholarship.
In 2009 you graduate from Marquette and make your first steps to become a professional soccer player. What was that transformation like?
After college I knew I wanted to play pro ball but I didn't have many opportunities. Marquette was consistently at the bottom of the Big East Conference so I wasn't scouted. Plus that year, there were only two rounds in the draft, no extra rounds or supplemental draft as they have today. But one chance popped up: a training camp with the Portland Timbers. Stan Anderson and Louis Bennett knew some of the staff in Portland and gave me a strong recommendation.
Portland flew me out for a week. I was there with roughly thirty other players who had the same dream that I had. I knew this was my one and possibly only chance. I gave everything I had that week. The week finished with a friendly against the University of Portland. We won 2-0 and I started and played 75 minutes. At the end of the week Portland's head coach at the time, Gavin Wilkinson, offered me a one year contract. I jumped for joy. This was it, I had made it, a professional soccer player at last.
This was in 2010, the year before the Timbers went to MLS. I looked at it as a year long trial for the MLS squad. That year I soaked up all the information I could from the two other goalkeepers, Steve Cronin and Adin Brown. Both these guys had been pros in MLS and Adin even had played abroad in Norway. I asked question after question and did everything I could to make an impact on that team. I was fortunate enough play a few games and to this day I'm not sure there was anything more I could have done.
At the end of the season we had player meetings in November. They said they loved me and were very happy with my progress that season and that I was in their plans for next year. However, they didn't offer a contract up front. That should have been the red flag, but at the time I was so overwhelmed with the idea that I was in their plans in MLS. If I had been more mature and an experienced professional I would have seen the writing on the walls.
It wasn't until draft day in January that I got the call from Gavin Wilkinson that Portland wouldn't be offering me a contract for MLS. I was crushed. It was one of those moments where you are so numb that you don't show any emotion. But even though I was upset, the first thing I did was get back to work. I've always been a fighter and an underdog of sorts and all I have always known was hard work will get you places. My goal was to make sure Portland missed me.
You quickly end up in Sweden following the disappointment in Portland. How did the move overseas develop? Was this something you always wanted to do or did connections just line up?
It was a little bit of both. Khaled El-Ahmad was an ex-player of Louis and Stan at UWM and then he became a coach at Marquette. He grew up in Sweden and my whole time in college Khaled talked about Sweden. He said if I worked hard enough that someday I may be able to play there. So subconsciously I think Sweden was always a goal of mine because that is what I heard about the most.
About a month after my release from the Timbers I got a call from Khaled El-Ahmad, who was based in Sweden. He told me to pack my bags because there was a team in the second highest league in Sweden who wanted to have a look at me.
I was on a week long trial with Ängelholms FF and at the end of the week I was offered a two-year contract as their starting goalkeeper. We had an exceptional year in 2011 and we finished in third place. (The previous season Ängelholms finished 12th of 16 teams.) This was their most successful year in team history and we almost gained promotion to the highest league, falling just short in the promotion playoffs.
Did you ever think about returning to MLS?
Towards the end of my first season I got an email from Gavin Wilkinson from Portland asking for my phone number. When he called he told me that they had followed my progress that season and were very impressed with all Ängelholms had accomplished. We talked about my contract situation and he asked if I would be interested in coming back to Portland.
What??? This got me very excited. This is what I had worked towards, getting back to Portland, and they actually called me to say they had made a mistake in letting me go. But as we talked and the more I thought about it all, I was pretty happy in Sweden. I was a part of something special. Plus, if I went back to MLS the chances are I would have been the backup goalkeeper. Did I really want to go from playing every team game, and improving, gaining experience, just to essentially start over again? I thanked Gavin for the opportunity but told him I was going to have to pass. Timing is everything in this business and it just wasn't the right time for me to return. With that being said Portland is a wonderful organization, one of the best in MLS, and someday I would love to play there again.
Earlier this year you’ve signed with Helsingborgs, a premier Swedish club. What was the move driven by?
Having the ability to test myself at the next level. I've felt ready for some time now but the timing on this opportunity was perfect. Helsingborgs IF are five times Swedish Champions and one of the biggest clubs in all of Scandinavia. When their coach Henrik Larsson made it aware that he wanted to bring me on board, it was a no brainer for me. To be able to play for Helsingborgs and be coached by the most successful Swedish player of all time is a blessing.
As for Ängelholms, I'm very thankful to the entire staff and players. I got to experience many highs as well as lows. I learned a lot about myself as a footballer and human being. I wouldn't be as prepared as I am now for the next step in my career without my four seasons in Ängelholm.
You’re entering your fifth year in Sweden. What’s your time abroad been like? And what's something about playing in another country that most people don't think about?
The biggest thing a lot of people don't actually think about is what life is like outside of training. All players enjoy the game and what happens in between the white lines. For most players, training and games are the easy part. It's what you do the rest of the time outside of training that makes or breaks a player. If you are miserable outside of training it will eventually affect your play on the field.
American's going abroad do so with the idea that it is glamorous. In reality you have so much down time to yourself it is easy to get lonely and uncomfortable. I've talked about it a lot with my friends who also play or played abroad and the best advice we can give to anyone aspiring to play in Europe is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Overall, Sweden has been good to me. I came here for soccer but in the process I met the love of my life along the way. This alone made the experience worth it. She is a trooper and has been my number one fan since day one. Her unwavering support and willingness to join me on this journey is something I can't thank her enough for. I know it is cliché, but she is my rock.
What's the most common question you are asked from someone in Europe about America or being American?
This is a funny question. There are actually quite a few questions I get asked, some flattering to the USA and some not so flattering. But within the soccer circle the question most asked is about MLS and soccer in America. Players here are fascinated by the MLS and as you have seen this offseason, there are more Swedish players (or Allsvenskan league players) getting opportunities in MLS than ever before.
Lastly, three questions that don’t exactly have a whole lot to do with soccer. One, what's your favorite meal?
I'm a foodie and love all different types of food but my absolute favorite meal is my wife's Lasagne. She cooks it the night before every game.
Favorite childhood memory?
Meeting Michael Jordan when I was eleven. My best friend's dad played golf with him every summer and one time he took us to meet him. I remember my friend and I were seeing which one of us could eat the most candy before we met him. As you could expect he came up behind us and introduced himself just as we each had a mouthful of lemonheads. Coolest moment of my childhood hands down.
And pre-game superstition or ritual?
I put my clothes on the same way in the same order each day whether it's training or game and as I walk out to the field I grab a blade of grass, cross myself and say a little prayer to the man upstairs.