This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Harrison, N.J. • In years past, Matt VanOekel was playing second-division soccer, and watching the likes of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles compete in Major League Soccer.
On Saturday, he was going up against them and looking every bit as capable.
VanOekel earned his first MLS start in Real Salt Lake's scoreless road draw with the New York Red Bulls, a result made possible thanks to the 30-year-old goalkeeper. VanOekel made three stops on the day, including a highlight reel-worthy block on a low effort from forward Fredrik Gulbrandsen in the 64th minute.
"The level of talent is amazing here, and I get to play against some really cool players," said VanOekel with a laugh. "Today I got to play against Bradley Wright-Phillips, who I've watched countless times and for years. It was a real honor to play against him.
"To see [Luis] Robles in the goal across from me I'm a kid in a candy shop right now it was cool to see somebody that has played 144 games straight now. It's something that I'm striving to be and hopefully I can challenge some of those records later in my career."
It is unlikely that VanOekel racks up a string of starts at RSL, given that Nick Rimando is the entrenched No. 1. But the offseason acquisition showed he is capable of performing when called upon.
"Matt was big, all 6-foot-4 of him, tonight," said RSL interim head coach Daryl Shore. "He was big and that's why we brought him in here. We know we have probably the best goalkeeper if not one of the top two or three in Nick, but Matt's been chomping at the bits to get into this league. He put his time in in the lower leagues and he earned his chance tonight and he proved his worth."
VanOekel also helped Real Salt Lake earn a point while doing something that he has craved for some time.
"It's always been a dream of mine to be in the MLS," said VanOekel. "I think that's every soccer player's dream, to get to the highest level in the country that they are playing in."