Image: Steve Aibel, LittleOrcaSports.com / Pitch Black News
It hasn’t even been 48 hours since San Antonio FC’s inaugural season came to an end, yet the eyes of fans, media and the club are anxiously shifting toward next season. Between now and March though, SAFC has a problem to deal with: the goalkeeping position.
Now, you might be thinking there’s nothing wrong because Josh Ford and Matt Cardone both did well this season – but that is the problem. Both have proven they’re capable of justifying a start in goal, but only one can start. Both on- and off-the-field matters have endeared them to the fans in various ways as well.
Though he was signed after Cardone, Ford seemed the obvious choice as starting goalkeeper if nothing else due to his greater experience. Ford spent time in Major League Soccer with the Seattle Sounders and Orlando City SC before joining SAFC’s inaugural squad.
Former Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid cited Ford’s reflexes and bravery as his strongest assets, and Ford wasted no time showcasing those in an SAFC shirt. Despite a few nervy moments in and around his goal, particularly early in the season, Ford went 13 games in all competitions before conceding multiple goals in a game.
Ford also ended the season with a better goals-against average and save percentage than Cardone. Regardless of what the defenders directly in front of him or the attackers farther upfield were doing, Ford did his part to keep SAFC in games when called upon.
Ford was SAFC’s first captain, being a leader out on the pitch as well as in the locker room and on the training ground. Though SAFC had multiple players who spurred on the team, it was Ford who wore the armband and was officially the leader whenever he was playing. Even after breaking a shoulder blade in warmups for the Aug. 17 match against Arizona United and subsequently being sidelined for the rest of the season, he continued to motivate and encourage his teammates.
It was during a three-game suspension for Ford that Cardone got to show everyone what his potential and abilities were. In particular, that stretch showcased perhaps his two most notable contributions for SAFC on the field this season: a knack for saving penalty kicks, which he would revisit later in the season, and a club-record number of saves in a single match.
The first game of that stretch, against then-first-place Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2, seemed a tough match for Cardone to be thrown into. However, when the Canadian outfit was awarded a questionable penalty kick midway through the first half, Cardone read the spot-kick and dove down to his right to parry it away, eliciting a deafening roar from thousands of fans at Toyota Field. That was the biggest threat to SAFC that match and Cardone handled it well en route to a clean sheet.
Cardone also came up with a club-record nine saves in a single match on July 30 against the Swope Park Rangers. Though SAFC ultimately lost the match 2-1, Cardone proved his worth time after time as Swope Park peppered his goal with shots, particularly toward the end of the game. Cardone would go on to have other similarly impressive showings of shot-stopping later in the season.
Cardone has things going for him off the field as well. For one, he was born and raised in San Antonio and has played soccer in the city at the club, high school, college and now professional levels. He’s easily the SAFC player with the strongest ties to the city and the fans love him for it.
He’s also well-known for his monstrous beard, which has prompted the club and fans to proudly use the phrase “fear the beard” whenever referring to him. The phrase is often used as a hashtag on social media (though it existed prior to its use in reference to Cardone) and also inspired a Snapchat filter for multiple SAFC games. As if being a San Antonio native didn’t endear Cardone to the fans enough, the beard and its subsequent glorification are the icing on the cake.
After what both goalkeepers have shown this season, it’s a bit difficult to imagine one of them sitting on the bench every game. They may have different styles, strengths and weaknesses, but in the end they both carved out respectable parts of SAFC’s inaugural season. If they both want to play consistently – and both seem to have made cases that they deserve to – then one of them will have to move elsewhere.
Then again, maybe they’re fine with the way things were at the start of the season. Once he recovers from his injury, Ford would almost certainly regain the starting role, but if Cardone is willing to return to the bench and patiently wait for his next chance while continuing to improve on the training ground, then nothing needs to change. If you ask most San Antonians, they’re probably just fine with that for now, provided that Cardone gets his chance at some point.