SANDY, Utah – No. 1 in the West meets No. 1 in the East on Saturday as Real Salt Lake host Sporting Kansas City in one of the most-anticipated clashes of the summer on Saturday evening (10 pm ET, watch FREE on MLS Stream of the Week). And all of a sudden, third-string RSL goalkeeper Jeff Attinella will be at the center of it all.
With first-choice 'keeper Nick Rimando away with the US national team, Josh Saunders was expected to have about a month in the net, but a torn ACL just before the end of the first half last week against Dallas put Attinella in goal for his first MLS action as a pro. He more than earned his keep, making a couple of athletic saves to preserve the shutout, including one that earned him Save of the Week honors.
“Everything happened pretty quick,” Attinella told reportersearlier in the week. “I knew when Nick was going to be gone there was always a slight possibility something can happen. I did my best to train hard and stay ready for the opportunity, and unfortunately for Josh – we wish him all the best – but luckily it went well for me, so I’m happy to get that under my feet.
“It’s definitely a lot different having time to think about it,” continued the 24-year-old out of the University of South Florida. “But I’m trying to do my best just to stay calm and not let any of this stuff get to me. Just trying to stay focused. I played a lot of games at the NASL level, so I am just trying to do what I did down there and just prepare the same way.”
Although the situation isn’t ideal for RSL, the front office and coaching staff are confident that Attinella can play, and play well, at the MLS level.
"As a former goalkeeper myself, I put a lot of pride in the goalkeepers we pick for this team," RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey told reporters. "As the guy who was responsible for drafting Jeff two years ago to monitoring his development over the last couple years in the minor leagues – I think [RSL goalkeeper coach] Jeff Cassar is one of the finest goalkeeper instructors in the league – so I had a lot of confidence.
"Keep in mind Jeff Attinella was voted the best goalkeeper in the minors last year. He finished second overall in the MVP voting in the whole league, so this is not a guy who was unproven or untested."
Indeed, Attinella was one of the top 'keepers in the NASL last year, playing every single minute of the season on the road to the Tampa Bay Rowdies' Soccer Bowl win. He posted a 1.07 goals-against average in the regular season and led the lead in saves with 118.
He was recalled from his loan in Florida to be Rimando's backup, but that was before two-time MLS Cup winner Saunders full into RSL's lap in the preseason. Coach Jason Kreis said he is happy it happened that way, and asked if he thought Attinella would have been ready had a similar situation occurred in Week 2, he was honest in his reply.
"No, I don't think so,” said Kreis. “I think he needed some more time with us, more time with Jeff Cassar in particular to get him prepared. He also needed some games, which we were fortunate enough to get him. "
Attinella was able to go on loan to another NASL side, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, for a few games earlier this season, but he knows Saturday vs. high-flying Sporting KC will be a little different.
“Thanks for the reminder,” joked Attinella. “I am just going to go out there and do my best. I am trying to fill the shoes of the best goalie in MLS and the last two-time [MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper]. They are definitely big shoes to fill, but I am just going to go out there and try to do my best and hopefully keep this streak going for the team.”