All-Star nod offers reflection for RSL's Nick Rimando in 20th, final season

Nick Rimando – Real Salt Lake – organizes defense

ORLANDO, Fla. – He’s on his 20th and final season of perhaps the most impressive goalkeeping career in MLS history, with just a few months left before he hangs up his gloves for good. But Nick Rimando’s still not taking himself too seriously.

“My standout moment so far?” pondered Real Salt Lake’s ageless ‘keeper in response to a reporter’s question after a sweaty MLS All-Star training session under the tropical Florida sun on Monday morning.

“Being in the air conditioning.”

While Rimando, 40, might have gotten acclimated to dry heat over his dozen-plus years in Utah, he’s not a stranger to the Sunshine State. In fact, he featured for Miami Fusion FC when he earned his first All-Star nod, way back in 2001. Suffice to say that back then, the All-Star Game was not quite the grand spectacle we know today (though Rimando and others can be seen taking part in the "Skills Competition" here, an idea making its return in 2019). 

Nor was MLS itself.

“San Jose – East vs. West,” he recalled on Monday. “You had a lot of Americans on the team back then, it was all East-West and now I think there’s like four or five [this year’s fully tally of US players is seven]. So the talent obviously has gone up, the structure of it, playing Atletico instead of East-West, the exposure, for sure.

“Seeing where the league is at right now, with the players that are coming in and the teams that were playing – from back then to now it’s changed a lot. It’s good to see that the league is moving in this direction.”

That 2001 season probably marked the low point of the league’s existence. The 9/11 terrorist attacks disrupted the final weeks of the regular-season schedule and huge financial losses led to the contraction of the Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny franchises over the winter. The league’s subsequent reorganization and founding of Soccer United Marketing guided MLS along the first steps towards its survival, and eventual prosperity.

Relatively few MLS players’ careers have spanned such eventful times and dramatic turnabouts, a fact that’s not lost on Rimando as he tries to savor his final months on the pitch. On March 1, he announced his plans to retire at season’s end, and despite some tumultuous emotions around that milestone, he’s gradually found peace with it. His All-Star selection as a commissioner’s pick has provided another full-circle moment.

“In the beginning, when I made the decision, it was a bit tough to kind of just go with it,” Rimando said on Monday. “I think now that the season’s halfway through, the clarity is there and I’m good with it and I’m happy with my decision, and enjoying every game, every training, this experience. Trying to take it all in.”

Even in a light workout after a travel day, the quality and celebrity of his All-Star teammates was crystal-clear to Rimando as he takes stock of a personal journey that’s run alongside that of MLS as a whole.

“There’s all kinds of talent,” he began, “players that, when I was growing up, I didn’t think would be in this league. And now you see these players – Nani, [Wayne] Rooney, players that you’ve seen on TV that are there, gracing fields, that my kids can look at and look up to.”

Rimando retains some affection for the old days, however. While cognizant of the pageantry and visibility that high-profile clubs from abroad like Atletico Madrid bestow on the All-Star Game, he’d prefer to take it back to the original, intra-league format, where twice as many MLSers were recognized and goals typically flowed freely. He’d even like to add a wrinkle once used by Major League Baseball to raise the stakes of its midsummer classic.

“Personally, I would love to see East vs. West. That was fun back then – maybe put something on the line, like MLS Cup [hosting rights],” said Rimando. “This is fun for the fans, bringing in Atletico and these big teams. But for me I’d prefer to go back to East vs. West.”

Over the years, a few ASG guests have routed their hosts, like the 5-2 and 4-0 beatings Manchester United put on the All-Stars in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Atletico Madrid’s elite talent and intensity have raised the possibility of another such ambush on Wednesday, though Rimando laughed off the idea of a rout like the one Atleti handed Real Madrid in an exhibition clash over the weekend. 

“Is that what they did?” he wisecracked about the 7-3 scoreline in the Stateside Madrid derby. “They’re a good squad, some good players for sure. But I think it’ll be a great game, not only for us, but experience for the young guys and obviously a showcase for MLS.”