An American soccer team sits poised on the brink of history. It’s not Thierry Henry’s star-studded boys from the Big Apple or David Beckham and his glitzy Los Angeles Galaxy, but gritty Utah-based Real Salt Lake. “We don’t have any big stars and we don’t spend big money,” veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando told FIFA.com on the eve of what he calls “the biggest game” in the club’s history. “Our team is our only star.”
Clearly, the only thing Salt Lake have in common with Madrid’s Real is a name. They are every inch the anti-Galacticos, and damned proud of it.
The club’s blue-collar work ethic first came to the fore in 2009. Founded on a shoe-string budget in the unfashionable outskirts of Salt Lake City four years earlier, RSL snuck into the play-offs and went on to grind down LA Galaxy to be crowned Major League Soccer champions in a shock for the ages. “[LA] were loaded with stars,” said Rimando, who saved a crucial penalty from Edson Buddle in the shootout, “and we weren’t.”
What the men from Salt Lake did have was “determination, hard work and willingness to battle,” according to the stocky, lion-hearted goalkeeper, himself a native of Southern California. It’s a club philosophy that he credits to coach Jason Kreis, a no-nonsense striker with a cannon of a shot in his playing days. “When Jason came to the club he flipped a switch,” remembered Rimando. “If you wanted to be in his team, you had to work. Your reputation meant nothing,” added the 31-year-old veteran, formerly of Miami Fusion and DC United.
Rimando is the perfect man to stand as the last line of defence for this outfit from the high Rockies. Dismissed early as too short, he’s proved his detractors wrong time and again over the course of a 12-year career, even earning five caps with a US national team known for an embarrassment of riches in the No1 position. “People told me I was too short, but there’s nothing I could do about that,” he said with a smile. “So I worked hard on the things I could improve: reading the game, using my feet and positioning.” Add to that the fact that he is among the finest shot-stoppers in MLS history and third in the league in all-time clean sheets and you begin to get a sense of what can be gained through graft, guts and natural ability.
Salt Lake are now just one game away from being crowned the best team in North, Central America and the Caribbean, 90 minutes away from becoming the only side from the United States to win the CONCACAF Champions League and reach the FIFA Club World Cup. “Nick is big player who makes big plays in big games,” said Kreis of his man between the pipes.
Defiant on Mexican soil
This was never clearer than last Wednesday when RSL travelled to Mexico City to take on defending Mexican champions Monterrey as rank outsiders. Having dispatched Deportivo Saprissa and Columbus Crew en route to the final of the Champions League, the Americans were expected to suffer on the road in the first leg. Mexican teams have won the last five instalments of the continental competition and MLS sides have historically been on the wrong side of big scorelines in Latin America, especially in Mexico with their intimidating stadiums, huge crowds and big-money clubs.
“Walking out of there with a 2-2 draw felt like a win,” said Rimando, who is of partial Mexican heritage, with obvious pride. But his natural humility soon take over: “We limited their chances and luckily they didn’t finish many of the ones they got.” It’s modesty, plain and simple, as Rimando twice denied talismanic Monterrey striker Humberto Suazo early on in a blinding performance. He made a raft of important and acrobatic saves to keep his team alive. “Everyone was smiling after the game in the locker-room,” said Rimando, “expect for Kyle...”
The Kyle in question is Beckerman, a formidable presence in the centre of midfield and the team’s captain. He picked up a yellow card and will miss the return leg this evening in Sandy, Utah. Although coach Kreis considers the booking harsh, Rimando sees the loss of his skipper, ball-winner and metronome as just another stumbling block to overcome. “We got this far because we are a deep team,” he said. “Whoever takes his place will have big shoes to fill, but we know he’ll kill himself to do the job.”
Real are on a 23-month unbeaten run at their Rio Tinto Stadium and would be crowned champions with a win, a 0-0 draw or even a 1-1 result. “We need to be the aggressors,” Rimando concluded, his normally cheery tone suddenly steely and serious at the assertion that they might speculate. “We’re playing at home and they need a goal. It’s a big night for us, for the league and for American Soccer. We know the responsibility on our shoulders.”