Today, FC Edmonton announced the signing of veteran second division goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel. Virginia native Van Oekel had spent his entire seven-season professional career with various incarnations of Minnesota soccer clubs, starting with the Thunder in 2008, and has been the starter for the Minnesota Stars/United since 2012.
Though seldom classed among the NASL’s best Van Oekel’s had some good seasons behind stalwart defenses. He’s also one of the league’s most stylish players, his various haircuts being a bit of a running gag in NASL circles, and will fill the niche left by the departing Lance “Blue Steel” Parker. Probably more importantly, Van Oekel also brings experience to what is a pretty young goalkeeping corps: John Smits is the most experienced of the bunch with his three professional seasons.
We haven’t done one of these in ages! Here is Matt Van Oekel’s career to date. As always, regular season only, NCAA statistics are unreliable, NASL statistics are dodgy especially in 2013, and though he was the starter I haven’t got his 2007 Rutgers numbers at all:
|2007||Rutgers||NCAA||statistics not available|
Van Oekel’s college career began in 2004 at Longwood University. Those bold Lancers were taking their first step into NCAA Division I and were massacred like Russians at Sevastapol. But you mustn’t blame Van Oekel: the freshman started all seventeen games, got a tonne of work, and posted surprisingly reasonable numbers for a guy who conceded 41 times.
Sensibly, rather than get shell-shock as the college soccer equivalent to Ben Scrivens, Van Oekel promptly bailed to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a cavalry motif apparently suiting Van Oekel just fine. As a sophomore he fought Lubos Ancin for playing time and saw action October 8 at Louisville, a team that included his new Eddies teammate Frank Jonke. Jonke scored twice on Ancin so Van Oekel rolled out of the bullpen for his first action in seven matches; Jonke almost immediately beat Van Oekel to get his hat trick. But the Jonke show against Ancin established Van Oekel as Rutgers’s starter for the rest of the year. Truly, this was a partnership meant to happen.
Though it’s hard to tell because of Rutgers’s inability to post statistics for his senior year, and a pre-season ACL injury hurt, Van Oekel ended his college career in 2007 with a good record but few accolades. He was left off the MLS Combine lists and ignored in that year’s SuperDraft despite a weak year for goalkeepers. (It’s not like his program was overlooked: his teammate in 2005 and 2006 was Nick LaBrocca, while 2007 featured a young Dilly Duka.)
Patience is a virtue, even for Lancers and Scarlet Knights, and soon Van Oekel got his chance. Prior to the 2008 season Van Oekel went on trial with the USL First Division Minnesota Thunder and impressed enough to win a contract. The Thunder had a decent veteran team but were weak in goal: Joe Warren had just retired and Nic Platter would see his first season as a pro starter. A great opportunity for Van Oekel, though Platter played every minute in 2008. Still, Van Oekel’s option was picked up for 2009, and on September 13 he made his professional debut at Stade Saputo, stopping four shots to help Minnesota earn a 1-1 draw with the Impact.
The 2010 season was a big one for American second division soccer and it was big for Matt Van Oekel. The United Soccer Leagues and North American Soccer League were having their acrimonious divorce, playing one last campaign together as the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League. The Minnesota Thunder were no more: the team dissolved, but their hosts at the National Sports Center created a new club known as the NSC Minnesota Stars stocked with former Thunder players. Van Oekel was not signed but stuck around on amateur terms, and while Platter showed interest in the new team he soon went to Martin Rennie’s Carolina Railhawks. The Stars replaced Platter with two veterans: ex-DC United man and Liberian international Louis Crayton, already a seemingly washed-up wanderer at age 32, and, seemingly crazily, 35-year-old ex-Thunder goalkeeper Joe Warren, who had actually been retired for the past four years.
Crayton ended his professional soccer career 45 minutes into the Stars’ first game on a bonehead play at Swangard Stadium when he tried to fake out Dever Orgill for no obvious reason, collided with the young Jamaican forward, and blew out his ACL. Warren came on in relief and began one of the more improbably successful second acts in American soccer history. With Crayton gone, Van Oekel was officially added to the roster, saw a few games, and did well enough to earn a contract for the inaugural 2011 NASL season as the badly under-financed Stars mounted a surprisingly decent run. For 2011 Warren remained the starter and Van Oekel played only one match, in (quite pleasingly) Edmonton on May 23, where the Stars lost 2-1 to a Kyle Porter brace. It was hard to blame coach Manny Lagos for sticking with Warren: after a dodgy regular season the Stars surprised everyone by taking the first NASL championship thanks in no small part to Warren’s heroics. The veteran goalkeeper retired for (presumably) the final time after 2011, though, and Van Oekel’s option was picked up.
In 2012 Van Oekel finally ascended to the starting job for his fifth season in Minnesota. With his only competition being rookie Mitch Hildebrandt, Van Oekel was assured the bulk of the minutes, and though Hildebrandt impressed when he played Van Oekel was Manny Lagos’s man. Minnesota, Van Oekel included, was inconsistent but (stop me if this sounds familiar) rode a mediocre regular season to a stirring playoff run that ended only with a defeat on penalties to Tampa Bay in the NASL final. Van Oekel also took part in a memorable US Open Cup giant-slaying when he and the Stars knocked off MLS title contenders Real Salt Lake 3-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Van Oekel’s 2012 season was good enough to earn him an extended trial with MLS’s DC United. It didn’t work out, and while Van Oekel signed a two-year contract with Minnesota the newly-rebranded United also grabbed veteran keeper Daryl Sattler, holder of the NASL Golden Gloves. The good news for Van Oekel was that Sattler was injured midway through the spring season: the bad news was that both Van Oekel and Minnesota played poorly, conceding 14 goals in six games with a pretty lowly 0.611 save percentage. In the fall results improved, though we haven’t got the shooting data to say more: in any case Van Oekel played every minute between Sattler’s injury and the last two games of the year, when United was out of the running and Hildebrandt started.
Van Oekel hadn’t proven he was good enough to start for an elite team, but he hadn’t proven he wasn’t either. At the start of 2014 Mitch Hildebrandt had only played four NASL games and third-stringer Andrew Fontein, recently signed from Tampa Bay, was equally inexperienced. Manny Lagos stuck with Van Oekel through the first seven games , but an injury brought Hildebrandt in for the last two games of the spring. Van Oekel returned to the eighteen in the fall but Hildebrandt continued to play until August 9 when, in a game all Eddies fans will remember, he was sent off and Van Oekel took over. With Hildebrandt suspended Van Oekel played the next week against Indy and remained the starter for the rest of the season, apart from one game in Edmonton.
Now Van Oekel will face the first change of scenery of his professional career. For the second time he’s competing for a spot with the Golden Gloves winner: John Smits took the 2014 award for lowest goals-against average. Then again, goals-against average is not very meaningful as a statistic. Then again again, Van Oekel’s most successful seasons have come behind strong defenses. His 2012 was fairly good but nothing remarkable, his 2014 quite nice (in relatively limited minutes), but 2013 and his backup years showed little to get excited about. Van Oekel’s Minnesota teams have been consistently well-coached and solid under the tutelage of Manny Lagos; Edmonton is also quite a good defensive side but there’ll still be an adjustment there.
Van Oekel has struggled with consistency, which is probably the main reason Minnesota looked for other options while he was there. That said, the younger John Smits is no picture of consistency himself, and some of his mistakes have been high-profile ones. Certainly Van Oekel has the quality to fight for a starting job: equally certainly, neither he nor Smits will want to be the backup. Given FC Edmonton’s long and glorious history of serious goalkeeper injuries, getting veteran cover makes sense for Colin Miller. But the one team we thought would regularly start a Canadian goalkeeper in 2015 is now far from a sure thing.