On a night when Real Salt Lake needed perfect goalkeeping, Nick Rimando answered the call.
In the first leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference Semifinals, against the Seattle Sounders at Centurylink Field, RSL was under siege for nearly 100 minutes.
The Sounders’ first dangerous shot came in the 25th minute. Their defender, Marc Burch, sent a ball to midfielder Brad Evans in the box, but Real keeper Rimando was on top of it in no time.
From the outset of the game, RSL’s strategy was plain: Get out of Seattle with a draw. The semifinals are a two-leg affair and the next match would be Nov. 8 at Rio Tinto. Home sweet home.
But Real Salt Lake did have their chances. In the 30th minute, Seattle’s defender, Jeff Parke, had an inaccurate pass just in front of goal bounce out of bounds. Real’s forward Alvaro Saborio took advantage of his proximity and flicked a ball to midfielder Ned Grabavoy, who tried to head it in, but the Sounder goalkeeper Michael Gspurning easily got his hands on it.
It would soon be Rimando’s time to shine.
The Sounders were awarded their fifth corner in the 33rd minute. Midfielder Mauro Rosales kicked it right to forward Sammy Ochoa, who was replacing the electric Eddie Johnson. Ochoa sent the ball screaming dead on goal, but Rimando dove sideways just in time to pop it over the crossbar. Rosales took another corner immediately after that attempt and sent it right to the feet of defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. He, too, shot it straight at the stoic Real goalkeeper. Rimando punched this chance out, as well.
Not to be outdone, in the 38th minute, Seattle’s keeper Gspurning blocked Real midfielder Will Johnson’s equally accurate shot with one hand. As with every other RSL-Seattle matchup, tempers flared. Five yellow cards would be awarded in all, three in the space of 10 minutes.
The second half was just under way when Sounders defender Adam Johansson fed a ball to midfielder Christian Tiffert, who sent another one dead at goal. The 33-year-old Rimando managed to catch it with his elbow, sliding along the pitch. He would bat another ball out of the box in the 57th, as well.
Rimando’s night was far from over. Ten minutes later, he would collide near the goal with Tiffert and come down rolling on the grass in agony, clutching his eye. Though trainers spent close to 10 minutes bandaging up the gash on the side of his head and it was later revealed that he'd broken his nose, he kept playing, bloody gloves and all. This didn’t stop the 35,000 Seattle faithful from enthusiastically booing him for the rest of the game, however.
The last of Rimando’s six saves of the night came nearly halfway through stoppage time. The Sounders’ pace had picked up significantly during the last 10 minutes, almost as if the specter of Rio Tinto was hanging just over their heads.
But a little swelling around the eye wouldn’t stop RSL’s man of the match. He was ready when Seattle’s star forward Fredy Montero came into the box all alone. Rimando dove down and plucked the ball right from his boots.
The game ended, a 0-0 draw. Sound familiar? But this time, the Sounders have to come back and beat Real at home. Again.
Easier said than done.