The past couple of weeks have been most eventful in the career of Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Matt Nelson.
The Tampa, Florida native became the fourth individual to keep goal for Bob Lilley’s side this season, having taken over the number one jersey that was vacated by Tony Caig following his sudden departure home to England in late June. The 29-year-old arrived in Vancouver in the last week of August after the Whitecaps had agreed a loan deal with his parent club Harrisburg City Islanders before the July 30 transfer deadline. Before Nelson could embark on a his spell with the Whitecaps, the shot-stopper helped Harrisburg claim the USL Second Division championship with a penalty-shootout victory over defending champions Richmond Kickers on August 25.
Buoyed from helping the Pennsylvania state capital club to the USL-2 title, Nelson is hoping that good fortune can rub off on his current club, as the Whitecaps look to defend their 2006 USL-1 championship. “It’s fantastic being up here in Vancouver,” Nelson told whitecapsfc.com. “It’s a great organization and a fantastic opportunity for me right now. The level of soccer is a little bit greater here, but at the same time, the mental approach remains the same. The guys on the team have made it really easy for me to adjust. I’ve come in and we’ve been able to get results in the last three games.”
Lilley wasted little time in making Nelson his first-choice keeper, as he made his Whitecaps debut only five days after Harrisburg’s USL-2 championship success by recording a clean sheet in Vancouver’s 1-0 victory over Minnesota Thunder. Nelson then made some key saves in last Friday’s 1-1 home draw with Atlanta Silverbacks before posting another shutout against Portland Timbers this past Sunday. “I think the three games I’ve played in, we’ve played quite well,” Nelson said his three Whitecaps appearances. “Atlanta, Minnesota and Portland have all been quite good teams to play against, and yet, we’ve had the better of the play in all three of those games, which is very encouraging.”
Though Nelson spent much of this season playing a division below the Whitecaps, he has experience of USL-1 following his four seasons with the now defunct Virginia Beach Mariners. His career also included spells in the USL’s Premier Development League with both the South Jersey Barons and Cape Cod Crusaders, as well as a overseas stint in the League of Ireland with Kilkenny City. “As a professional, you always want to play at the highest level you can, so being able to go from USL-2 to USL-1 is great,” he said. “The season is longer, so you get to play more games and train longer.”
Before embarking on a professional soccer career, Nelson developed his skills at the NCAA Division Two level with Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Nelson credits the Fighting Knights’ English-born head coach, Shaun Pendleton, in helping him with his growth in,to the professional game. “The coach we had at Lynn was an English coach, and he pretty much ran the program like a professional team,” Nelson revealed. “He treated us like professionals, and he expected us to act like professionals, so the transition from Lynn University into the pro game was quite easy.”
With the USL-1 regular season now at an end, Nelson will now face further playoff action with the Whitecaps this coming weekend. Having already faced Richmond in a penalty shoot-out last month, the keeper feels confident of succeeding in a similar situation with the Whitecaps, should it arise. “I’d be okay in a penalty shoot-out, though I’d rather hope we would not get that far,” Nelson said. “However, if that’s the way we’ve got to go through, then we’ll take advantage of it just the same. We’re all pretty happy with the level we are playing, both as individuals and as a team, so I think we’ll be ready come Friday.”