D.C. United goalkeeper Nick Rimando has faced more than his share of struggles in 2004, battling debilitating knee injuries while trying to keep pace with hot rookie 'keeper Troy Perkins for a place in the first 11.
But the league veteran has fought through a torn meniscus in one knee and chronic tendonitis in the other, returning to form and re-energizing the competition for the Black-and-Red's starting job.
Rimando was a rock of stability for United last year, posting a 1.13 goals-against average and playing every minute in goal until he blew out his left knee on Sept. 25. He then recovered from ACL reconstructive surgery quickly enough to edge out 2003 SuperDraft pick Doug Warren for the No. 1 spot this preseason, and started seven of United's first eight games.
But Perkins' surprising surge sidelined both of them, leading to Warren's release and Rimando's relegation to the bench. Rimando was also experiencing ongoing pain in his right knee, which finally forced another knee surgery over the All-Star break. He missed more than two weeks of training, but the decision has paid off.
"My right knee feels great. I can tell the difference 110 percent," says Rimando. "I'd been playing with a torn meniscus for about three, four months. (Now) I'm a lot closer to my full strength than in the beginning of the season. On the left knee, I've still got tendonitis on the patella; that comes and goes. But (on the right knee) I feel so much better, more confident."
D.C. head coach Peter Nowak and his staff have certainly noticed Rimando's resurgence.
"In the last couple of weeks, the injury held him back a little bit, but he's getting better every single day," Nowak said. "If he's going to continue to work like (this), then I'm sure at the end of the day, it's going to be very competitive. After the work he's put together now after the injury, I think he deserves to get a shot again."
Said Rimando: "I think I deserve a shot to get back in there. I don't think we've been on a streak that says, 'No, I can't get in the goal again.'"
The 25-year-old, who began his MLS career with the now-defunct Miami Fusion, has used his early-season benching as motivation.
"It was difficult at first, but there's two ways to look at it: to sulk and pout and have a bad attitude, or just play and make sure the coaches see how good you are, and how good your attitude is," said Rimando. "Hopefully that opened the coaches' eyes again, and maybe gave me a shot to get back in."
Rimando's recovery has come about amidst widespread speculation that he will leave United via the expansion draft this coming offseason. He has made no secret of his desire for a starting role, but remains focused on the task at hand.
"Sure, there's rumors around: I'm going to Chivas, I might be going to Salt Lake, (former Chicago Fire 'keeper) Zach Thornton's coming here," says the Montclair, Calif. native. "There are a lot of rumors, but I'm on D.C. United. That's where my head is, and my job right now is to play for D.C. United. If that (means) staying on the bench, and being a good guy in the locker room, that's the way it is, for this year."
But it's difficult to imagine Rimando being comfortable spending further time on the sidelines, and he might be contemplating a move back to his California roots.
"My goal right now is to play," he says. "If that's here, that's here. If it's not, then who knows? The front office will make decisions, the coaches will make decisions. I want to play -- hopefully that'll be this year, maybe into the playoff run.
"I think every goalkeeper in the league, and every player in the league, will say that they want to be on the field and playing. If I could do that on another team, then maybe that's the way the coaches want to go with it."
Nowak describes his team's goalkeeping competition as "50/50 again," though he has declined to discuss Rimando's future in detail.
"We're going to talk after the expansion draft," says the first-year coach. "Right now we don't know who's going to be protected, how it's going to be. It's simply speculation, so I don't want to do that. It's not fair to my players."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.