MATT ZAIKOS' MOVE TO NEW ZEALAND WAS CANCELLED, BUT NOT HIS DREAM OF A PRO CONTRACT
Matt Zaikos is not going to New Zealand. The country was one of the fastest in the world to close its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, going into a nationwide lockdown on March 25.
“I didn't really think it was true,” Zaikos said. “When the news came out, I'm like, ‘All right, this might last maybe a week or something. They'll get a vaccination. They'll figure something out.’”
His agent was putting the final touches on a deal that would send the 26-year-old goalkeeper to the Southern Hemisphere to resuscitate his playing career in the New Zealand Football Championship. Instead, Zaikos said he was furloughed from his day job as a part-time manager at an indoor soccer complex and was applying for employment insurance. “I was kind of going crazy,” he said.
Barring a medical miracle, Zaikos, who currently plays for Darby FC in League1 Ontario, will be without a professional contract in the fall. Borders will stay shut. Seasons will be cancelled. And teams will be low on cash.
But Zaikos isn’t thinking of any of that; his focus is on the next training session.
“When this is all done, whoever is the fittest and whoever wanted it more is going to get an opportunity,” he said.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Born in Markham, Ont., to Greek parents, Zaikos solidified his status as an up-and-coming goalkeeper in Canada after being named a League1 Ontario All-Star in 2015 and 2016. From there, Zaikos signed his first professional contract for Australian second-division champions Devonport City FC, where he appeared in every single minute of every match.
“He’s very confident on the ball,” said Darby FC defender Joe Zupo, who has known Zaikos since his teen years. “He has a good command of his box. And he’s a good shot-stopper.”
What he isn’t good at, though, is salmon farming, a side-gig he attempted for a day in the hopes that he could extend his stay in Australia past the one-year working holiday visa he was issued.
“In Australia, it’s tough to get a second-year visa,” Zaikos said. “You have to work in an industry that’s in demand in the country, so I worked on a salmon farm for a day, and it was horrible. I was there [on the farm] for twelve hours, and after when I got to practice, I couldn’t move. So I was like, yeah, I’m not doing this."
Fortunately, Zaikos toiled away enough on the field to catch the eye of Miles Pinsent, head coach of the Canadian national team set to compete in the 2017 Summer Universiade in Chinese Taipei.
Zaikos made three appearances for his country in Chinese Taipei and posted a 1.00 GAA. Now on the national radar, Zaikos had his sights set on an opportunity that wasn’t possible just two years prior: breaking into the Canadian Premier League.
“I knew Bobby [Smyrniotis] because he was my coach in the all-star game [in L1O], and I knew he was going to be the coach of Forge FC,” Zaikos said. “And he was always emailing me, saying, ‘Be ready, I’m going to invite you to preseason camp.’”
After playing out the 2018 season with Darby FC in L1O, Smyrniotis’ invitation came as promised. But Zaikos’ CPL dream didn’t last long; he was released before the start of the season.
“I just got back into it right after,” Zaikos said. “That couldn’t stop me. I just had to keep trying.”
Back at Darby FC, Zaikos earned his third L1O All-Star nod in 2019. But his efforts went unnoticed. “I tried reaching out to all of the clubs, but most of the clubs signed their keepers to three-year deals, and others went with international keepers,” he said.
And Zaikos isn’t alone; all but one player — Aurora Stingers midfielder Max Ferrari, who signed for York9 FC — in L1O in 2019 made the jump to the CPL for the 2020 season so far.
It’s a startling fact when you take into consideration that the Canadian Premier League acquired L1O in 2018 to serve as the “CPL’s official development league,” according to comments from L1O commissioner Dino Rossi at the time of the acquisition.
With a foot in the door in New Zealand, a pandemic has now infected Zaikos’ hopes of sustaining a professional football career. And with L1O also postponed until government health officials give sports the green-light, Zaikos has turned to a wall in his backyard to help him keep his reflexes sharp.
“I'll just kick the ball up [against the wall] and make some saves, you know, look a bit crazy in my backyard,” he said. “It’s not game realistic, but it gets my hands ready and gets me diving on the ground.”
Although social distancing limited what he can do on the ball, Zaikos isn’t taking any chances with his fitness levels; he’s hired Brydon Caesar, founder of Zenith Athletic Performance, whose clients include former Valour FC captain Skylar Thomas, to design him a weekly running and strength routine, which he follows using BridgeTracker, a custom personal training app.
“He [Caesar] gets updated on fast I do things and how many reps I’ve done,” Zaikos said. “And if my form is not right on any exercise, I can upload a video and he can see it.”
For extra accountability, Zaikos also texts Zupo, who he says is one of the main sources of inspiration that has helped him navigate tough days in quarantine.
“Basically we have this mentality where, if we just stay in shape, we’ll have an extra edge on our competition,” Zaikos said.
“Both of us still think we have a chance in the CPL,” he added. “By now and the beginning of the season, whenever it is, anything can happen. So we’re just sticking around long enough for an opportunity.”
How long does Zaikos plan to hold on before he decides to hang up his gloves? Despite the fact many goalkeepers reach their prime in their early 30s — and sometimes play well into their 40s — Zaikos believes that next year could be his expiry date.
“This was the big year to see if I can crack something in USL or CPL,” he said. “But if I’m still playing in League1 Ontario next year, I’ll just keep playing there until my body gives out.”
It’s a harsh reality many Canadian players eventually face. The CPL is the only league in the country that pays a livable salary. Zaikos said he only get gas and food money for playing in L1O.
Meanwhile, making the move across the border is about to get complicated; a new rule in the USL Championship starting in 2021 will deem Canadians as international players (teams are only allowed seven international players on their rosters).
Before the pandemic, Zaikos worked part-time as a manager at Markham Sports Dome. He said he's confident that as soon as Ontario Premier Doug Ford gives recreational facilities the go-ahead, he’ll be back at work.
And Zaikos, who has a degree in sport management, wouldn’t mind going full time if his pro-footballing career doesn’t pan out.
“It’s good money, and it’s all soccer people,” he said. “Everyone I talk to there is like, ‘Oh I played against you or you’ve coached me.' I pretty much know everyone that comes into the dome. It keeps me connected to the game.”
Zupo, who’s a qualified history teacher, is also using this time away from football to explore his options, studying exercise physiology and completing an online nutrition course from UC Berkeley. Although he isn’t getting any credits for the work he puts in, he said a future career as a strength coach isn’t out of the question.
“For me, doing something that can help me come out of this a better version of myself has been a good way to keep me grounded and motivated,” Zupo said.
Staying grounded and motivated is just about the only thing a footballer can do during these unprecedented times. Whether it will be enough for either of the two to earn a professional contract when the quarantine is lifted, however, remains to be seen.
But that doesn’t keep Zaikos up at night; the only thing on his mind is the next morning's training session.
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