Overlooked for awards, GK Nick Rimando seizes U.S. role, destined for World Cup spot

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Barring the unforeseen, Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando is headed to Brazil with the USA as the third goalkeeper. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Nick Rimando

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Nick Rimando is admired, finally, by the people who matter.

He’s beloved in northern Utah, where Real Salt Lake can’t keep the “NICK IS MY HOMEBOY” T-shirts on the shelves and where Epic Brewing’s Rimando’s Wit is an increasingly popular option for local beer drinkers.

Rimando, 34, also is respected deeply by U.S. national team Jurgen Klinsmann, who has left the World Cup door ajar for just about every position on the field save goalkeeper. Barring an injury, Rimando will go to Brazil.

The fact that a player with his resume has been nominated for the league’s goalkeeper of the year award only three times (and never won) and has started only one All-Star Game (and that was 13 years ago under the old intramural format) seems incongruous, and Rimando admits it might bother him under different circumstances.

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“Earlier in my career, I’d probably have a different answer,” he told SI.com here in Arizona, where the U.S. is preparing to play Mexico on Wednesday. “But now, I’ve been looked over so many times and had to rely on how I do on the field and the confidence I have within myself. It’s great to get those awards, but now I almost take pride in not getting the award anymore. I don’t want a pity award. I want to go out there and control what I can control.”

He’s done that in Salt Lake. In 2006, two years after backstopping D.C. United to a fourth MLS Cup title, he was an add-on to the trade that sent Freddy Adu to Utah. Rimando was shipped to the New York Red Bulls two months later and then quickly reacquired because RSL’s first-choice netminder, Scott Garlick, abruptly retired.

Rather than feel hard done by, Rimando controlled what he could control, embraced the ethos of his small-market club and re-established himself as one of the league’s elite players. His remarkable reflexes, field-player’s touch and increasing comfort with organizing a defense helped RSL become a champion in 2009 and a consistent winner ever since. Rimando now ranks second in career MLS regular season victories and needs three more shutouts to break Kevin Hartman’s record, having played nearly 70 fewer games.

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That caught Klinsmann’s eye. When the manager has his full squad available, he opts for English Premier League stars Tim Howard or Brad Guzan. But for games like Wednesday’s, when Klinsmann must rely on domestic talent, Rimando is the first choice. He’s 8-0-0 with four shutouts under the German coach and helped the U.S. win last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

“You’re a good guy, you come into camp and you do things the right way, Jurgen loves what he brings in the locker room and the camp environment. And his performances have shown that when he has the opportunity, he’s very solid,” said Kasey Keller, the retired U.S. legend who occasionally helps coach the current crop of goalies. “It’s a credit to Nick and his persistence.”

Even if a given player is unlikely to see significant time at the World Cup, Klinsmann still considered his potential impact on the squad. The coach speaks frequently about attitude and chemistry and doesn’t consider any spot on the roster an afterthought. He’s been watching Rimando off the field as well as on.

“Obviously he’s an outstanding goalkeeper,” Klinsmann said. “Also his personality is something that is very special to this group. He’s a pure giver. He’s always looking after people. He’s always there for them, and he’s always a giver to the next generation as well, which in this case is Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid.”

Klinsmann continued, “They went through a stretch of difficult times after the disaster with not qualifying for [the 2012 Olympics] and Nick really lifted them back into the game. He helped them in every game. He’s a leader -- a quiet leader in the background. Obviously we have Tim Howard and Brad Guzan No. 1 and 2, but he’s established himself as the clear No. 3 because of all those things that he brings to the table.”

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Rimando’s stranglehold on the third spot presents a rather intriguing issue. Keller called it “the worst part of being a goalkeeper. Just one of you plays.” Since 1990, when the U.S. returned to the World Cup after a 40-year absence, an American backup goalie has appeared in just one of 22 games on the grand stage. Odds are, Guzan doesn’t see the field in Brazil. Only a catastrophe would thrust Rimando into the World Cup spotlight.

Keller has been on both sides. He was a backup in 1990 and 2002 and the starter in 1998 and 2006.

“It’s his shot to be on a World Cup team,” Keller said. “It was exactly the same as [third stringer] Marcus Hahnemann over the last two World Cups. You have to make a decision as a pro.”

After everything Rimando has been through – the trades and the doubts and a seven-year stint in the international wilderness – that decision is a no brainer. He’ll take a trip to the World Cup over any contrived award.

“To be part of this group and having the talks with Jurgen when first came in about being a leader on and off the field, being a good pro, showing the young guys what to do, I take pride in that and I think that’s why I’m here today,” Rimando said. “We’re a country with great goalkeepers. I’m not going into this with any frustration or any doubt about whether I’m going to play … I’m going in there to prepare the team, not just the goalkeepers but the field players when they need me. Just keep my mind open and enjoy the ride.”