Sunday's MLS Cup showdown between D.C. United and the Kansas City Wizards figures to be a closely fought battle between the league's most explosive offense and its stingiest defense, and the result might well hinge on the performance of the goalkeepers of the teams.
While there might be lingering uncertainty about whether Wizards coach Bob Gansler will stay with Bo Oshoniyi or give the start to recovering veteran Tony Meola, D.C.'s Nick Rimando is the clear No. 1 for the Black-and-Red. But that wasn't always the case.
Rimando earned his present position by toiling through a trying season that saw him struggle with knee injuries and lose the starting job to rookie Troy Perkins in May. After undergoing ACL surgery in the offseason, Rimando struggled to get back to full health, and though he was United's starter on Opening Day, he was clearly not his old self.
"It's the old rollercoaster of a professional athlete," says friend and teammate Ryan Nelsen. "You have such highs and lows, and Nicky went for a low when he did his ACL, and coming back from injury, he just wasn't the same, in his own words."
Rimando is widely considered one of MLS' most athletic 'keepers and holds the distinction of being the only netminder under six feet tall to appear for the U.S. national team in decades. So the gimpiness brought on by his patchy recovery from surgery, combined with tendonitis in both knees, was particularly debilitating for his playing style.
"Nick was not healthy when we started the season," says D.C. coach Peter Nowak, "and we saw that his mentality, his approach was not 100 percent. Then he got injured again, and we knew we had to get through a time (before) he's going to be back as a great goalkeeper, as he was before. In the meantime, Troy Perkins did very well for our team. He was the guy who pushed Nicky to the limit, saying, 'OK, this is going to be a very tight competition.'"
When Rimando underwent another knee surgery at the All-Star break, many thought his season was done, and with the steady play of Perkins, there were even rumors that his D.C. United career was at an end.
"That was definitely a down time in my career," says Rimando. "But I kept a good head and I got back in the net. There's rumors flying around, about me coming here (to Chivas USA, L.A.'s new expansion team) or me going to Utah, but right now I'm with D.C. United. That's my team, and that's who I want to be with."
Rimando gradually worked his way back to health, and with renewed confidence in his physical skills, he made enough of an impression on the D.C. coaching staff to earn a start against Dallas on Sept. 11. His return coincided with United's late-season surge up the standings, a surge which has carried Rimando and his teammates into the MLS Cup Final.
"Just seeing him work so hard and get back, it motivates you, knowing that all the hard work that he's put in is bearing fruit in the last 10 or 15 games of the season for us," says Nelsen.
Now the Montclair, Calif., native and UCLA graduate prepares for the biggest game of his career in his old southern California stomping grounds. Unsurprisingly, he expects a substantial turnout from his loved ones.
"I'm very excited, especially with the Cup here in L.A. with my family and friends," he said. "I think there's going to be at least 100 people here -- the Galaxy did a good job taking care of my family. There's going to be a cheering section of Rimandos for sure."
Rimando expects a tough test from Kansas City, but like the rest of his teammates, he is full of confidence as United look to continue their six-game winning streak.
"We know that they're a very disciplined team, a very compact defensive team," said Rimando. "Their counterattack is great going forward. All in all, they're a very organized team, but we're an organized team and we know how to score goals too."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.