33114_isi_rimandonick_mlsmj0601309021 Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com
Player Spotlight

Nick Rimando's World Cup Dreams Are Taking Shape

The Real Salt Lake goalkeeper was told he would never make it in the professional ranks, and now he is on the verge of representing the United States in the 2014 World Cup. Brooke Tunstall has his story.

BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
May 15, 2014
12:00 AM
WHEN THE UNITED STATES men's national team takes the field against Mexico Wednesday night, it will very likely be led down the tunnel by a player who once went so long between caps that he thought his national team career was done.

He's a player whose national team career is just blossoming at an age when most are either winding down or long over. A player who has spent his entire life proving wrong those that doubted he could succeed at his chosen position because of his size… or lack thereof.

At 35, Nick Rimando is much closer to the end of his playing career than the beginning. But in terms of the U.S. national team, the Real Salt Lake goalkeeper has finally carved out a regular place, a place that, barring injury or the unforeseen, will see him receive one of the coveted 23 tickets to Brazil as part of the the 2014 World Cup.

The odds of Rimando playing in Brazil are slim—he’s behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan on the depth chart and rarely have teams used all three of their goalkeepers in a World Cup—but none of that matters to the Montclari, Calif., native.

“I mean, it’s the World Cup and it’s in Brazil, the cradle of our sport with all that great passion for the game. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that in some way?” he told American Soccer Now. “But I don’t want to put all my eggs in that basket. I haven’t made the World Cup team yet. If the call comes, it comes. I still have to show well in training (this) week and hopefully get a chance to play against Mexico.”

It’s part of the paradox of Rimando’s career that his likely place on a World Cup roster is both expected and unlikely. Expected because he was a youth national team star, sharing GK duties with Howard in the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. And in 2002, when the United States played its first game after the World Cup in a friendly against El Salvador that featured a slew of young players expected to be a big part of the next World Cup cycle, it was Howard and Rimando who split the minutes in goal.

Rimando got two more caps in 2003 but while Howard became a regular with the Stars and Stripes, the call-ups stopped coming for Rimando. He went almost seven years between his third and fourth caps and only had five when Jurgen Klinsmann took over as U.S. head coach in the summer of 2011. And that's why his place on a World Cup roster once seemed unlikely.

Rimando admitted there were times when he thought his national team career had ended before it really took off.

“I think every player thinks if they get on a good run of form that they can always get called in to their national team,” he said. “But when you go so long you stop worrying about it. It was always out of my hands and there are a lot of good goalkeepers in this country. So if it didn’t come, it didn’t come."

"I focused on the things I could control, which was playing well for my (club) team and doing everything I could to make Real Salt Lake better. And if the call-ups came, great. And if not, I still have (that I’m) playing well for my club and helping it win.”

In doing so, he’s carved his name into Major League Soccer's record books. Rimando's 350 regular season games played is 4th all-time and tops among active players; his 110 shutouts is two behind Kevin Hartman for most in league history. He is second in wins with 153; third in saves (1,241); 6th in goals-against average (1.14); and 8th in save-percentage (72.3). In short, he’s been one of the best, and most consistent, goalkeepers in a league that has featured some pretty good ones.

Despite those numbers, Rimando has never won MLS’ Goalkeeper of the Year award—something which surprises his current boss, Jeff Cassar.

“Without a doubt, he should have won it at least once. I’m shocked that he hasn’t won it yet,” said Cassar, who was a veteran teammate when Rimando was a rookie with the Miami Fusion in 2000. Cassar later became Rimando's position coach in Salt Lake before becoming head coach this winter.

“Not taking anything away from the other goalkeepers in this league, some of them have been fantastic. But what he’s meant to this team, this city, and this league—he needs to be recognized more than he is.”

Being overlooked and then proving his doubters wrong is a familiar refrain for Rimando. Despite his youth national team pedigree and three strong seasons at UCLA, he fell to the 3rd round of the MLS SuperDraft in 2000, something he attributes to his height (which is generously listed at five-foot-ten.) In an era when goalkeepers are usually well over six-feet tall, this makes him the shortest GK in MLS.

San Jose’s Jon Busch “is maybe an inch taller than me," Rimando jokes, "though my hair sticks up and he doesn’t have any, so I might look taller.”

“Without a doubt it played a role in my falling in the draft. I’ve dealt that my entire career, people telling me I was too small to play goalkeeper. But I use that as motivation. It’s a badge of honor now—to have succeeded and proven people wrong. And now I have kids and parents reaching out to me through social media or in public, saying they’re a small goalkeeper and I’m their role model to keep playing."

"That means a lot to me and it gives me a lot of pride and makes me work harder.”

Rimando has reached an almost Zen-like perspective on his career: “The most important thing for me now is Real Salt Lake doing well,” he said. “We’ve been one of the two or three or four best teams in MLS for five or six years now. I think that’s what Jurgen’s noticed, and he’s very comfortable with me and with what I bring to the national team.”

That comfort came to a head last summer as part of the United States' run to the Gold Cup championship. Rimando started a friendly against Guatemala on the eve of the tournament then started five of the six Gold Cup games, going the full 90 all six times. He got more minutes in 23 days in July—540—then he had in his previous 11 years with the national team.

“It was a big chance for me to show what I could do, as much off the field as on it," Rimando said. "I think on it (Klinsmann) already knew what I could bring. But I was able to show the kind of leader I can be, especially with a lot of the regular leaders on the team not there, and show what I can be like in the locker room.”

As part of that clubhouse presence, Rimando has mastered the locker room art of finding the balance between intensity and keeping things loose, something that is usually key for teams with good chemistry.

“I actually take a lot of pride in being that person who keeps the locker room loose,” he said. “You bust your ass in training and have intensity when the whistle blows on gameday, but you also have to be able to laugh, to make jokes, shoot the shit. When the team is happier in the locker room, it’s going to play better.”

And that may ultimately be his biggest role for the U.S. in Brazil.

However, there is at least one scenario where some observers imagine Rimando being able to come off the bench and make a difference: If a game in the elimination rounds was headed to penalty kicks, would Klinsmann save a substitution to put Rimando into a game late in overtime? Rimando is the best penalty kick stopper in MLS history, saving 20 of 61 in the regular season, including five of his last eight dating back to 2012. He also came up huge when PKs were used as a tie-breaker when Salt Lake won the 2009 MLS Cup.

What makes the league’s shortest goalkeeper so good at stopping penalty kicks?

“He’s really became a student of the game,” Cassar said. “He watches video. He watches the players. I think that Nick is an exceptional soccer player, not just a goalkeeper. He’s got an incredible knack of reading players and reading the game. It allows him to have a different insight into what the (opposing) players are thinking."

"I won’t speak for (Klinsmann) but that’s an option I’d want if a game was going to PKs.”

We want to hear your thoughts on Nick Rimando. Share them in the Comments below.

Brooke Tunstall is a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its initial player dispersal draft. You can follow him on Twitter.

Post a comment

AmericanSoccerNow.