GROVER: Professional Pyz

When Matt Pyzdrowski was a kid, like so many others, he wanted to be a professional athlete. Unlike so many others, he actually is one, now.

Growing up in Chicago, he had dreams of the baseball field and the basketball court. But when Matt entered high school, he felt soccer was his best chance. So he stuck with it.

When you’re young and playing soccer during recess, goalkeeper is the position no one wants to play. Standing there and watching everyone chase the ball is no fun. Pyzdrowski was no different.

“It’s funny how I got stuck in goal,” Pyzdrowski said. “When I was twelve, our goalkeeper got hurt, and the coach just kind of threw me in there.”

Now he does the job no one wants for a living. The recently graduated Marquette goalkeeper has just signed a two-year contract with the upstart Portland Timbers, a minor league team that will join Major League Soccer in the 2011 season.

“It’s a cool feeling,” he said. “Marquette has only had a few professional soccer players come out of here, so it’s definitely special, and I realize how rare it is.”

He’s right. Marquette is a basketball school, not a soccer academy. And Marquette soccer has weathered some rough patches in the last few years. So how does a goalie on a four-win team get into the MLS?

“Last year, I thought he was the best goalkeeper in the Big East by far. … Teams don’t look for that young upstart to play in goal,” men’s soccer coach Louis Bennett said. “They look for a seasoned veteran. So for them to be interested in Pyz means they saw some of his maturity on the field. And his physical tools, being that big and that quick is a huge positive.”

Pyzdrowski certainly came a long way since the beginning of his soccer career — all the way across town, in fact. He followed Bennett from Wisconsin-Milwaukee four years ago and slowly but surely turned Marquette into an improving program. With this signing, Marquette men’s soccer has something to hang its hat on for the first time in several years.

“I think it means a lot for the program. … Portland, for all intents and purposes, is an MLS franchise,” Bennett said. “To see it can be done here, it says to people, if you want to get a great degree at Marquette and play in the Big East, and by the way, if a dream of yours is an opportunity to play pro, you don’t have to look any further. It’s a definite recruiting tool, and now all the current players think, ‘If I act like Pyz … ‘ ”

Emulating the 23-year-old keeper is harder than it sounds. Pyzdrowski’s work ethic is tremendous; he even trained in Sweden the past two summers. But he mastered his craft at the training grounds of Valley Fields, under Bennett’s guidance.

“I knew that they were special and they had a plan,” Pyzdrowski said of his coaching staff. “Honestly, without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

A goalkeeper is the general of the field, directing defenders and midfielders to keep the door closed on the opponent. A goalkeeper sees all, because he has to.

But one thing that is hard to see is the future. Pyzdrowski will be a professional for at least two years, maybe more. Bennett, a former seven-year pro, has been there before. His one piece of advice:

“Enjoy it,” he said. “Enjoy the ride.”

“Don’t get involved in the grind. It’s a daily routine you have to buy into. You’ve got to find that boyhood dream in the day-to-day running, day-to-day pressure. You have to keep that boyhood love and do it in the moment.”

In a year, perhaps Pyzdrowski will find himself between the posts, staring down the barrel of a David Beckham free-kick, still working the job no one wanted. He will dig down deep and remember this is what he always wanted. And he will stop the free-kick. Because that’s what professionals do.

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