Now in second place in San Antonio FC's history in appearances and minutes played, goalkeeper Matt Cardone has become a cult hero among fans in his native city and beyond. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
Of the players that competed in San Antonio FC’s inaugural season in 2016, only goalkeeper and San Antonio native Matt Cardone remains on the roster five years later. Now a veteran at 27 years old, Cardone is set to this year make his 100th appearance for the club and in the process become its all-time leader in appearances and minutes.
We caught up with the shot-stopper to talk about becoming a central part of the club’s history, his legendary beard, the players in the SAFC Academy that are now getting the opportunity to emerge more quickly from the region’s talented pool, and how the club learned from past disappointments to return to a place where it can contend for a title this season.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nicholas Murray: It’s been a decade since you began your college career at Trinity College, did you ever expect 10 years later you’d be competing professionally in your hometown?
Matt Cardone: No… (laughs)… not really. Sometimes I look back and I think it’s kinda funny and also kinda cool how it all just lined up for me that way, where I was able to do it all in the same place.
NM: What does it mean to have been one of the mainstays for San Antonio FC over its history?
MC: It means a lot. Especially in a league where there’s a lot of turnover at clubs, it makes me feel valued that the club put their faith in me and returned the effort I’ve put into the club every day over the past six years now.
NM: The whole thing with this is you’re a San Antonio native, you played at Trinity, then you got into the professional ranks in your hometown, I don’t think there are very many stories like yours in American soccer, at least in the way it’s come about for you. The circumstances of your path are very unique in some ways.
MC: Of course, and I don’t know how much a little bit of fate was mixed in there but it all kinda worked out where I was able to stay here and ended up going to university here, and then just was able to get the opportunity first with the Scorpions and now with San Antonio FC. to have such a great organization right here in my backyard that was happy to have me on.
NM: You’re up into second place in San Antonio FC’s history for appearances with 81 regular-season games and minutes played, what will it mean to pass Greg Cochrane and reach 100 appearances for your career with San Antonio, which is likely going to happen this season?
MC: Yeah, it would be a huge honor and a milestone to finally catch up to the legend, Greg. It would be really cool to be considered in the same breath as Greg Cochrane and some of the other guys that had represented the club in a lot of games and a lot of meaningful moments.
NM: What does it meant to have been there at the start with players like Greg and some of the other really great players that San Antonio has had and be that thread back to that first season.
MC: It’s something to tie it all together, especially because there are a lot of things I learned from guys like Greg, Stephen McCarthy, Josh Ford, a lot of the guys who had experience when I first started, and I was still learning things. It’s been great to take those things and continue them on with the same club.
It would be really cool to be considered in the same breath as Greg Cochrane and some of the other guys that had represented [San Antonio FC] in a lot of games and a lot of meaningful moments.
NM: Now it’s your turn in a way to start passing those things on, I guess.
MC: Yeah, I’m taking on more of a leadership role. I think there’s an expectation there, I want to help out the younger players just like the older players helped me out when I was younger because if I didn’t have that guidance when I was a younger player, I don’t know if I would have made it this far, or be able to be successful.
NM: As long as we’ve known you as a San Antonio player, you’ve had the beard. When did you first grow it?
MC: [Laughs] Oh, man, I was getting my first peach-fuzz in like fifth grade or something. I kinda had it when I was in college, just a little bit being lazy, but obviously it kind of became part of my persona. People seem to like it, so I just kept it.
NM: How big of a part of your persona as a player is it, just having that look, having that image, even if it’s maybe not necessarily who you are as a person?
MC: Yeah, I think it portrays the “Fear the Beard” that people like to say and it had a certain look that’s maybe a little bit intimidating, even if as a person I like to consider myself a very nice, pleasant person. The persona comes in handy for matchdays when you’re going to battle
NM: You trimmed it up a little bit this year, it’s looking to a little sharper. When we saw the pictures of you in the Viva kit launch last week, it was like, “Hmm, that is a handsome man.”
MC: We had a ‘keeper model an outfield players kit for the first time ever, so I wanted to make sure I looked extra-good for those pictures because it’s a once-in-a-career opportunity.
NM: How cool is it to be part of that, and especially part of that part of San Antonio FC’s identity to where you’re now one of the faces of the club, and one of the players that I think long-term is going to be associated with the club, whatever the future holds?
MC: That means a lot to me. I really embrace the club and their culture and values, and it means a lot to me that they’ve chosen me to be a part of that, and that my character and my values line up with theirs. It’s just really meaningful to me
San Antonio FC's Matt Cardone models the club's Viva Kit, which was officially unveiled last week. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
NM: What’s the daily routine like for beard maintenance?
MC: [Laughs] You’ve just got to make sure you keep it clean, standard shampoo and conditioner, but other than that I don’t do too much for it. Obviously, I got it trimmed up a little while ago and it does look a little better after you get a trim – you look less like the Geico Caveman and a little more like a human being – but nothing too complicated, no fancy oils or anything.
NM: There is obviously a pretty good trend of facial hair, beards, mustaches, interesting stuff going on in the Championship’s Goalkeepers Union, is there anyone else out there that you look at and think, “man, that’s a pretty good look”?
Birmingham Legion FC goalkeeper Matt VanOekel. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
[Matt VanOekel] has a far better mustache than I do – he has one of the thickest mustaches I’ve ever seen in my life – but we both rock our look pretty well and the fact that we have the same name, we’re both goalkeepers in the union is pretty cool as well.
MC: I mean, honestly, I think about the game from this past weekend with Matt Van Oekel. I’ve known him since he played for FC Edmonton, but obviously we’re the same name, same position, we both have excellent facial hair. He has a far better mustache than I do – he has one of the thickest mustaches I’ve ever seen in my life – but we both rock our look pretty well and the fact that we have the same name, we’re both goalkeepers in the union is pretty cool as well.
NM: Is there any sum of money it would take to shave it off?
MC: Oh, yeah. For the right price, no problem. It grows back pretty quick, so if someone wants to throw a couple-hundred bones my way we could make it happen. Might get in trouble with [San Antonio FC Communications Staff] Preston [Petri] or Luis [Leyva].
NM: What’s your favorite Jose Gallegos story?
MC: I would say just his come-up as a whole. It’s been really impressive to see his potential, his talent kind of come to a certain level of fruition for now – he’s obviously got another level that he wants to go and he’s capable of – but just the fact that he’s a very down-to-earth guy, he’s very intelligent, he’s a great teammate on and off the field, and just to see his talents on the field is fantastic. I think it’s really important that people know he’s also got very good character, and he’s a very good guy off the field. He’s a big team player, and I think that’s important because a lot of people just see what he does on the field, the skill and the talent he has.
Goalkeeper Matt Cardone (left) and fellow San Antonio natives Carson Price, Ethan Bryant, Jose Gallegos and Leo Torres after the club's 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup game against Laredo Heat SC. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
NM: As a San Antonio native, you knew how many good players were in the city and region when you were a youth player, what does it mean to see that young talent like Jose or Leo Torres be harnessed now by the SAFC Academy, and have the opportunity take the steps into the professional ranks at 15, 16 17 years old?
There’s a ton of talent in this region, and a lot of times the trouble was getting an opportunity or getting a look. When I was coming up it was a little more difficult to get seen by universities, the professional aspect was particularly difficult, but now I think it’s great that the club has provided kids the opportunity to train, to be part of the academy from a young age.
MC: I think it’s a testament to the talent in the area and the opportunity the club has worked to provide. There’s a ton of talent in this region, and a lot of times the trouble was getting an opportunity or getting a look. When I was coming up it was a little more difficult to get seen by universities, the professional aspect was particularly difficult, but now I think it’s great that the club has provided kids the opportunity to train, to be part of the academy from a young age and to be with the best technical staff in the area to grow as a player from a young age.
NM: We’re obviously seeing a lot of growth in this area, Major League Soccer has done a great job with that but now we’re seeing it in the Championship and League One. Why do think San Antonio has been able to be ahead of the curve in some ways – in the same way that someone like Orange County has been with their development program?
MC: To me first off it starts with the people you have in your organization, right? I think the way that it’s run by Tim Holt and the front office all the way down to the academy staff that we have, they’re all top-level coaches and they want to do things in the right way. They’re all very genuine in the way they approach things and I think that’s a big difference-maker. Yes, there’s a lot of talent in the area but they’re able to mold that and sculpt that so they can potentially make their way to the professional ranks, but also for the individual players so that whatever the next level is for them, they’re prepared for it.
NM: Do you ever have to remind the kids how it used to be, and to make sure they make the most the opportunity they’re getting now?
MC: Yeah, I think sometimes they’re very curious. Some of the ones now like Jose and Leo were kind of in that in-between phase where at the beginning it was before the whole academy thing existed, so they understand that, but sometimes a kid will hear about how it was playing regular old club soccer or high school even, or some of the fields we got to play on and some of the competition, sometimes they get curious and its interesting for them to juxtapose that with how everything is now, and also remind them it’s still the same game. You’ve still got to put in the work and make things happen, whatever talent you may have, you’ve still got to put in the hard yards no matter what the surrounding situation is.
I think the way that it’s run by Tim Holt and the front office all the way down to the academy staff that we have, they’re all top-level coaches and they want to do things in the right way. They’re all very genuine in the way they approach things and I think that’s a big difference-maker.
NM: What does it mean as a current player to see the way the landscape is changing for young players now and potentially the opportunities it’s going to lead to further down the road for more American talent in more cities.
MC: It’s really exciting, not only as a San Antonian but as a footballer to see that there’s so much opportunity now for players coming up. Obviously, growing up I’ve seen a ton of talent, some of the kids I played with were insanely talented, but just didn’t necessarily have the same opportunity that you can say some players have now. The sky’s the limit, I think there’s a ton of potential in the players that are coming through the Academy programs and I think there’s a few players now like Leo Torres and Jose Gallegos who could in the future be even more than that.
NM: Last season saw the club really come back into its own after some disappointing years outside the playoffs. What do you think the difference was?
MC: I think one of the big differences was we learned from those experiences. There’s a big negative feeling that comes with missing the playoffs, especially in some of the ways that we did where it was by a few points here and there. You would see as a whole and as individuals, you realize how important every point is as well as every little moment you have, and how you have to make sure you’re winning and you’re competitive in every single moment to push us over that line. Last year, we met some of our goals – we made it back into the playoffs, got a home matchup. We lost, but now I think we understand what it takes to push it to that next level and make a playoff run.
NM: What does it mean to see arguably three of the top teams in the Championship right now in yourselves, El Paso and Rio Grande Valley all come from Texas?
MC: I think it’s exciting. If you want to be the best, you want to play the best and you want to beat the best and I think it’s great that we’re going to see so much competition this year. Obviously, they’re all great teams, but we think we’re a really great team as well, so there should be some really good matchups the rest of the way.
San Antonio FC goalkeeper Matt Cardone and his teammates wll meet Rio Grande Valley FC for the second South Texas Derby of the season on Saturday night at Toyota Field. | Photo courtesy Rio Grande Valley FC
NM: You’ve played the Toros already once this year a couple of weeks ago, they edged you out. Now that they’re an independent club, have the chance to recruit their own players, how good could that make the South Texas Derby moving forward?
MC: That adds another level to the rivalry. Before it maybe seemed like there was a little asterisk beside it that they were a hybrid team, but now it just brings another level of excitement to the rivalry now that we’re both independent clubs and able to go at it in our own independent ways.
NM: What are you looking forward to most about Saturday night?
MC: I think just playing in front of our home crowd. They were great last week and in our opening weekend at home. Even though we’re not at full capacity yet, it was rocking, and I think after a year of having no fans or very minimal fans, I think the players are really excited to play in front of a great crowd every night at home. It really brings a great energy and gets the guys going, and up for big years.
NM: You mentioned getting back to the playoffs last year was good, but you’ve got bigger aspirations now. How far do you think this team can go at the end of the season?
MC: We want to be playing in that Championship Final, but that’s also every team’s goal to make it to the Championship Final and win it. We know it’s important to go game by game and moment by moment, you’re not going to get to the end prize unless you do the hard work to get there, and it started in preseason, now it’s moved into the matches, and now each match we’re hyper-focused on the game that week but understanding that we have bigger goals in mind, but this current moment is the most important.
We want to be playing in that Championship Final, but that’s also every team’s goal to make it to the Championship Final and win it. We know it’s important to go game by game and moment by moment, you’re not going to get to the end prize unless you do the hard work to get there.