Consistent Pickens vying for MLS title

Former Chicago Fire and current Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens was hopping around overseas just a couple years ago.

Following his strong 2007 MLS season with the Fire -- a campaign that found Chicago one win shy of competing for an MLS Cup -- Pickens explored his options, competing with Queens Park Rangers and battling in various trials throughout Europe.

"I played my four-year contract out and got a few offers from Europe. As any soccer player will tell you, you don't know when you'll get another opportunity like that," Pickens said. "So I took it. It made me an experienced player, going through that tribulation. You find out what type of player you are."

When things did not pan out in Europe, Pickens found his way back to MLS and Colorado last season. And now, he's one win away from an MLS Cup as his Colorado side takes on FC Dallas this Sunday at BMO Field in Toronto (7:30 p.m. CT kickoff, ESPN).

"Last season, coming in and trying to play a full season after not playing consistently for a full year, that took a toll on my body," Pickens said. "My body didn't hold up as much as I thought it would, and I had a few injuries last year that set me back. That hurt me. This year, I started in 29 out of 30 games during the regular season, so I've been staying healthy and playing consistently.

"That's the most important thing to a goalkeeper is consistency, and you start to play with more confidence," he said. "When you're in and out, it's hard to keep a rhythm going."

Colorado as a whole has jelled during this critical stage of the season. Among the Western Conference-heavy playoff field as a wild card, the Rapids topped the Columbus Crew in a shootout, then blanked the San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0, to reach the final.

"We've been decent all season," Pickens said. "We haven't dipped too hard, and over the last two months or so we've been playing our best ball."

The attacking side will be a huge focal point in Sunday's game. The Rapids have their familiar tandem of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, and Dallas sports Jeff Cunningham and recently-named MLS MVP David Ferreira.

"Our back four have been great and have made my job easier," Pickens said. "We need to be fully aware of what Dallas can do -- respect Ferreira, respect and neutralize Cunningham's speed. We didn't play them long ago, but this is going to be a different game."

Equally important will be the goalkeeping matchup. Pickens has put together a strong season, allowing only 32 goals in 29 regular-season games. And it certainly can be argued that Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman is the sole reason why his squad advanced to this stage, past last year's champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference final.

"He's been solid his whole career, [14 years]. I'm on my seventh," Pickens said. "I've done half of what he's done, and he understands the game better than I do because of his experience. I'm still learning. Kevin would say the same thing. He's a proven goalkeeper in this league."

Pickens has had to deal with a groin strain for several months now, but he is good to go for this weekend's match.

"It's been a bit tricky, something I've had to monitor a bit more," Pickens said. "But I'm feeling better than the last few months. Having a full week [off] between each game has helped, so I'm feeling good."

Along his path, enduring the highs and lows, Pickens looks back fondly on his five-season tenure with the Fire that started when he was the 19th selection of the 2004 MLS SuperDraft.

"I really liked that locker room, a lot," Pickens said. "Of course I love Chicago for giving me my start, and it's close to home. Colorado has been good home to me, as well. We have a new attitude, and I've found myself in a Cup final now."