At Real Salt Lake, as the saying goes, “the team is the star.”
So Nick Rimando is not exactly the face of the franchise.
But it’s the goalkeeper’s last name on the back of the jersey a young boy wears as he watches his favorite team practice, and it’s his first name on the T-shirts his “homeboys” wear around town, and it’s his face on the bottles in the beer aisle at the grocery store.
For Rimando, RSL’s charismatic goalkeeper, these are the fruits of a professional renaissance that almost didn’t happen, not here anyway.
But as he starts his seventh season with RSL, Rimando has made a home in Salt Lake, built a cult following of fans, and caught the attention of local businesses and sponsors. And after putting ink to a deal last month to keep him in Salt Lake through 2015, the 33-year-old is still playing some of the best soccer of his life.
“I think everything that’s off the pitch kind of correlates with how well we’ve done on it,” Rimando said. “The winning way here, the way we embrace the fans and the way they embrace us all leads to what’s going on off the pitch for me.”
Function over fashion • Through six games this season, Rimando has been one of Real Salt Lake’s top performers. His 15 saves are the fifth most in the league, despite missing a game with the U.S. national team, and they have helped a team in transition exceed the expectations of many early in the year.
“It’s nice knowing you have a keeper in there who can bail you out,” midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. “He’s done that time after time.”
Injuries, international call-ups and an offseason reload have given Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis plenty to think about as he puts together his starting lineup each week. In Colorado on Saturday, Kreis will have to play his fifth different lineup in six games.
It’s a prospect made easier as he looks down the spine of the field.
Veterans Alvaro Saborio and Kyle Beckerman are back from time with their national teams. Nat Borchers and Javier Morales are back from injury.
And behind them all is Rimando.
“He’s a very calming presence for us,” Kreis said this week. “If you can keep a fair mix of those types of veteran players on the field, you feel you can tinker around the edges quite a bit.”
Already, Rimando has bailed RSL out of some tight spots.
At Buck Shaw Stadium, the keeper’s fingertips pushed a shot over the crossbar, giving RSL a chance to come back and earn three points against the San Jose Earthquakes. Two weeks ago, it was Rimando making saves against the Colorado Rapids that gave RSL a chance to score an equalizing goal.
“He makes big saves,” Schuler said simply.
A fresh start • In the winter of 2007, Nick Rimando was living out of a suitcase in a hotel room in New York City.
A few years earlier he had helped D.C. United win the MLS Cup, but injury and the play of a younger goalkeeper had pushed Rimando to the United bench. So when he was told he would be traded to Real Salt Lake, Rimando was excited by the opportunity.
His sister and brother-in-law lived in Utah, he would have a fresh start and a chance to help reshape a struggling expansion franchise. RSL thought it was getting a big-time playmaker, too — but his name wasn’t Rimando.
The trade that sent Jay Nolly to D.C. brought back Rimando and Freddy Adu, who then-RSL coach John Ellinger had mentored with the U.S. Under-17 team. Rimando and his salary were promptly traded to the New York Red Bulls.
“I don’t think he ever stepped a foot on Utah soil before he got traded away,” Kreis said.
It wasn’t until RSL goalkeeper Scott Garlick abruptly retired shortly before the start of the season that RSL called the Red Bulls back. The word from Rimando’s agent came shortly after a call from his wife saying she had just taken a job as a pharmaceutical rep in New York.
“My wife told me she got the job and I told her we were moving back to Salt Lake City,” he said.
Turnaround • Rimando and RSL struggled in that first season, but as other pieces were added around him, “the culture changed.”
Rimando’s revitalization didn’t surprise RSL brass or his teammates.
“If you take a look at this league, it’s changed a lot over the last four or five years,” Grabavoy said. “There are a lot of players who found themselves as outcasts for whatever reason — salary cap casualties or whatever. But there have been a lot of opportunities for guys like him to remake things in a different home.”
And while the trophy case in D.C., home of one of Major League Soccer’s most storied franchises, was full, Rimando said, Salt Lake provided a chance to write history.
“I was already going into a tradition there,” he said. “Coming here, I wanted to start a tradition.”
He’s helped do that both on and off the field.
Rimando’s crunch-time performances during the 2009 playoffs, helped RSL win the MLS Cup in 2009. And after being called up to the U.S. men’s national team last month, Rimando has his sights set on making a World Cup roster.
“This is, I think, my last go-around,” he said, “and I’m taking every camp, every step as an honor. It’s something I take dearly to heart to represent your country and be involved, hopefully, with a World Cup. If it’s playing, on the bench, I want to be involved, and I’m doing all I can to be there.”
His 15,500-plus Twitter followers pale in comparison to many professional athletes, but Rimando’s charm, the accessibility of MLS compared to other pro leagues, and a market that hasn’t been over-saturated with professional sports has helped turn Rimando into a recognizable name.
“Some of the fans were asking when we were going to do a Rimando beer long before we even sat down and discussed it,” said Michael Malachowski, sales manager for Epic Brewing in Salt Lake City. Epic’s Unsacred Brewing began selling Rimando’s Wit, a version of the goalie’s favorite beer, earlier this year.
“He’s got a huge following and deservedly so,” Grabavoy said. “When he wants to kick back and have a few this summer, he can look at himself on the bottle.”
Those cold ones will come after a job well done.
By the numbers
2015 • RSL and Nick Rimando agreed to a deal last month, extending the 33-year-old goalie through the end of the 2015, the team confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday.
100 • Rimando recorded his 100th career shutout in the first game of the season, a 2-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. He trails only Kevin Hartmann’s 112 shutouts for the all-time MLS lead.
15 • Rimando’s 15 saves are the fifth most in Major League Soccer through six games. Rimando has 1,155 career saves, third most in league history.