SEATTLE – It’s been 12 years since the Major League Soccer playoffs saw a performance like Nick Rimando’s. True, the Real Salt Lake goalkeeper was stellar during RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup run, but he outdid himself on Friday in Seattle. Holding the Sounders scoreless in one of the most lopsided 0-0s you’ll ever see, Rimando not only preserved his team’s chance to make it back to the Western Conference final, he put his name along side Tony Meola’s on the list of memorable playoff goalkeeping performances.
“These are the playoffs,” Rimando explained after saving RSL. “Big players step up in big games, and I think everybody stepped up tonight.”
Meola’s magic day came at RFK Stadium in 2000, his Kansas City Wizards in the MLS Cup final against a Chicago Fire team who, two years off a title and boasting the league’s best attack, were heavy favorites. The one thing the wizards had in their favor was the league’s Comeback Player of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year and MVP: Meola.
Kansas City jumped on the Fire early with an 11th minute Miklos Molnar goal. From there, it was all Meola, the former U.S. international making 10 saves – many at point blank range – in guiding the Wizards to their only title:
Rimando didn’t come close to matching Meola’s 10 saves. In fact, the conventional numbers paint a pedestrian picture of his night, his five saves only one more than Michael Gspurning’s. Use nothing more than that – the most commonly referenced goalkeeper statistic – and you’d have no clue how remarkable Rimando was; however, if you look at Seattle’s crosses (30) and see the Sounders’s shots on target (five), you start to get an idea of Rimando’s dominance.
Where did those other 25 balls go?
Some crosses came to nothing. Others never found their way to goal, but more often than not, it was Rimando, either waiting on his line for Seattle to test him or, more frequently as the match went on, coming out to the edge of his six-yard box to punch Seattle’s service from clear of goal. His efforts earned the shutout, but they also earned him three stitches, a broken nose, and seven minutes of boos from the Seattle faithful as he laid on the ground bleeding, cut open after a 67th minute collision with Christian Tiffert.
“I commit for a ball and the next thing I know I’m on the ground,” Rimando said, asked to recalled the incident. “I was told that Christian Tiffert kind of followed trough, not intentionally, but he followed through with his forearm and got me.”
“We thought he was going to have to come out,” head coach Jason Kreis confessed after the match. “[The trainers] did a good job getting the blood stopped and Nick continued on with a real brave effort.”
That reckless abandon – the command of his area – is what separated Rimando’s performance from the series of stellar efforts he’s given in the past. Always a man whose shot stopping could steal any game, the weakness in the 5’10” `keepers’ game has been his presence in the box. Tonight, however, he got stronger as the match went on. Whereas he looked tentative on the litany of corners Seattle won in the first half, in the second half he charged off his line, realizing he had to be more aggressive in the face of a relentless Sounder attack.
“[S]occer is like this a keeper has a night like tonight,” Mauro Rosales, launcher of so many of Seattle’s crosses, said after the match, trying to explain how Seattle’s best performance of the season ended in a scoreless draw. “[S]ometimes it’s just impossible to score. You can shoot from everywhere and not score.”
Teammates were more effusive with their praise.
“Nick’s a battler and there is no question that he is the best goalkeeper in the league in my eyes,” midfielder Ned Grabavoy offered. “I can’t say enough about Nicky. He’s the man of the match tonight.”
In the second half, Seattle attempted 20 crosses from open play. They only forced on save out of Rimando, and while that could be explained by poor execution, that would be a lie. Seattle was excellent on Friday, forcing the opposing keeper into remarkable saves on Brad Evans (25′), Sammy Ochoa (32′), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (33′), and Tiffert (51′). Rimando saved RSL.
“I think it will have to go down as one of the single best individual performances by any player that’s ever worn an RSL jersey,” Kreis said, an understatement.
Nobody will ever forget this performance, the type of effort that forces you to wonder who you else you could possibly want in a must-win game. In MLS, there’s no doubt. It’d be Nick Rimando, whose Friday’s performance makes you ask: Could Brad Guzan had done that? Could Sean Johnson or Bill Hamid kept that clean sheet? Would even Tim Howard have saved the night for RSL?
It’d be no disgrace to them if the answer was ‘no’.
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