[MLS] Most goalies thrive on work, but even for a workhorse like Nick Rimando, there's a limit. In his first season with Real Salt Lake in 2007, Rimando led the league with 146 saves during a turbulent campaign marked by the replacement of Coach John Ellinger with former MLS All-Star Jason Kreis.
RSL finished with a 6-15-9 record and 27 points, 13 shy of a playoff spot, and conceded 45 goals.
"When I first got here there were a lot of individual players who weren't so much a team," says Rimando, a member of D.C. United's 2004 championship team who might be the forgotten man in the trade that also sent Freddy Adu to Utah in December, 2006. "The defense defended, the forwards went and scored goals and the midfielders played midfield. Now, it's more of a team kind of effort and we've gotten that through our heads."
A stronger defense required Rimando to make just 73 saves, exactly one-half of his 2007 total, this season as RSL squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the season, just as it did last year before it stunned Chivas USA in the Western Conference semifinals. This year, it drew the defending champion Crew, which sent out a defensive lineup in the first game Saturday yet fell, 1-0, to a very late Robbie Findley goal.
Rimando faced just seven shots in that game and saved two in posting the seventh playoff shutout of his career. He expects a much heavier onslaught Thursday in Columbus, which will unleash Guillermo Barros Schelotto and probably Alejandro Moreno after they sat out the first leg. There are other weapons to be wary of as well.
"They're a dangerous team, they're not just one player," says Rimando, who joined MLS under the old Project-40 program and in his rookie (2000) season won the Miami Fusion starting job over Jeff Cassar, whom Kreis hired two years ago to coach the RSL keepers. "They have a lot of players who are dangerous, guys who are the national team for a reason. It's not going to be easy.
"[Robbie] Rogers loves the flank but he'll also cut that ball in and take shots. He's versatile. And Frankie's [Hejduk] not afraid to come forward. One thing about Columbus is they're organized. Somebody goes forward, another one fills in. We have to make sure we're organized and stay with our runners."
Fans also might forget RSL traded Rimando to New York two months after acquiring him, then worked yet another deal to get him back when Scott Garlick unexpectedly retired. Kreis replaced Ellinger a month into the season, which turned into one of struggle for a third-year franchise whose 2005 expansion mates, Chivas USA, found success much more quickly.
Kreis hit several bumps as he learned the head coaching gig more or less on the fly. He's been fined several times and not only for criticizing officials, as would any coach worth his salt; shortly after taking over for Ellinger, he approached Cassar, then employed by Dallas, without getting permission. Kreis paid a fine and the league also stripped RSL of a draft pick for the transgression.
"We knew that," says Rimando of Kreis' lack of coaching experience. "When he took over he raised his hand and said he's learning the job and he's going to make some mistakes. I think the whole team bought in to what he wanted to do here in his position. We trust him as a team and that's the most important thing.
"You're fighting for your coach, and as a player he wanted to win more than anybody. I've had an opportunity to play with him so I knew that from the beginning. He's led us in the right direction with that winner's mentality." Rimando also credits Kreis for hiring Cassar and former U.S. international Robin Fraser as his assistants.
Rimando in the eyes of some would merely serve as a fill-in as former U.S. youth international Chris Seitz, picked up in the 2008 SuperDraft, learned the ropes. That process is still on-going, and might continue for a while, if Rimando's nine shutouts and a 1.14 goals-allowed average is any indication.
He is still criticized for a stature (5-foot-10) that limits his range, yet is also among the league's best shot-stoppers, a valuable asset when facing a potent team that must overturn a 1-0 deficit in an elimination situation. The Crew's scoring has dipped the past two or three months, but it need only replicate its 3-1 home win over RSL on July 18 to advance.
RSL can counter, literally, with its speed and efficiency on balls played over and through the back line.
"We have some dangerous forwards and we've won games where we only had one or two chances, when we get a ball over the top and we score," says Rimando. "We have speed up front, Robbie brings that element, Yura [Movsisyan] brings that element. They're special players who can finish.
"We're giving Columbus the respect they deserve. They won it last year and they'll have a lot of confidence and experience going in, but at the same time we remember last year against Chivas. We did well at home [1-0 win] and in the second game let Chivas come at us and waited for our chances, and we won that series [3-2 aggregate after 2-2 tie in second leg]. A lot of the players were there last year and that will help us this year."