One dream is that it never ends. The cartilage never recedes and the synapses fire as fast as ever, and you just keep going. Every morning you pop out of bed without the reminder of the 100 times you hit the ground in practice the day before and your body and mind never tire of the routine. Everyone knows that this is not how things work and most of us accept it to some degree. Nick Rimando seemed to. Earlier in the year, when asked what he would do in retirement at the end his 20th MLS season, he responded not-really-jokingly that he would probably get a couple surgeries done.
The relatively more sensible version of that dream is that when the inevitable end finally comes, it’s on a high. Rimando had been there before, winning his first MLS Cup as the goalkeeper for DC United in 2004. As long as you’re visualizing, you might as well be bold: maybe it’s a stuffed penalty kick that you rise up from howling and fist pumping while everyone cheers. Flashes pop and confetti rains. This would not have been unthinkable for Rimando, who is one of the best spot kick defenders in MLS history, and that’s also more or less how his second MLS Cup win, with Real Salt Lake, played out. After saving three shootout kicks vs. the Chicago Fire in the Conference Final, including some top-hand ridiculousness on John Thorrington, Rimando stopped two more against the LA Galaxy in the championship game to seal the victory. For perspective, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and now USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter were on that LA team, and that was halfway through Rimando’s career.
No one dreams about giving an interview summing up “What This Has All Meant In Spite Of Today’s Disappointing Result” with rubber turf pellets stuck to their forehead and a shoulder still stinging from a routine parry in the first half. Rimando, like the rest of us, does not live in a dream. He had to settle for a late, point-blank stop with that tweaked left arm to keep a 0-2 playoff loss to the Seattle Sounders from being 0-3. He revealed after the game that he’d been playing with a torn rotator cuff.
Outside of the wear and tear of two decades as a professional athlete whose job description boils down to absorbing impacts, talking about Nick Rimando’s body is almost unavoidable. The reasons why are not always apparent when he’s holding court alone on his goal line, but were made more obvious when Seattle’s keeper, Stefan Frei, came over to squeeze his shoulders and pay tribute after the final whistle. Frei stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in the neighborhood of 195 pounds; in the spirit of the absolute worst of the old-timey baseball scouts, he looks like a Men’s Professional Goalkeeper. Whatever that means, Rimando decidedly does not.
Rimando told reporters, “Who would have a thought a 5-10 kid from the 909 would have got 20 years in this league?” Various sources have him listed between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11, but the bottom end of that range feels likely. That is taller than average for a human being and not entirely unprecedented for a world-class goalkeeper—the go-to “short” keeper reference in the men’s game being the gloriously beshirted five foot, six inches of Jorge Campos—but it is a remarkable aberration. Everton and England national team goaltender Jordan Pickford is 6-foot-1 and regularly faces questions about his height and arm length.
It is impossible to know how significant a role Rimando’s stature has played in steering his career. It’s not uncommon to hear people wonder how things might have been different for him if he were two, four, six inches taller, with arms and legs to match. How many of his spectacular saves would be made routine, how many apparently untouchable balls suddenly within his reach? Which clubs outside of the country and which other US National Team regimes might have picked up the phone and called?
Even with ever-improving analytical tools, these things are hard to quantify. Maybe upscaling Rimando’s measurements would have made him the greatest American keeper, and maybe it would have slowed his famously sharp reflexes. Who’s to say what skills he was forced to develop to compensate for his frame, or what low balls he got down to that he would not have with a higher center of gravity? It’s a fine exercise, but asking how things would be different if José Altuve, Spud Webb, or Crystal Dunn were half-a-foot taller seems less interesting than marveling at what they’ve done with the bodies that they actually have.
As it is, the only version of Nick Rimando known to exist, the one that fans have had the pleasure of watching, is a strong candidate for the Major League Soccer’s greatest goalkeeper. His tenure extended so long that his time there overlapped with everyone from Tony Meola to Zack Steffen, and his consistency throughout that run was extraordinary. He holds the MLS records for appearances, shutouts, and saves, and he set them while his peers— players like Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Brad Guzan—came and went to more lucrative, higher profile jobs abroad. All of them are built much more similarly to Frei than to Rimando.
Tim Howard, also 6-foot-3, may be Rimando’s best analogue. Howard is only a few months older and also wrapped up his career at the end of the Colorado Rapids’ 2019 season. While Howard made 121 appearances with the National Team, Rimando saw a respectable 22 caps. Howard will be widely remembered for exploits like his record 15-save showing in the World Cup against Belgium and ultimately successful 13-season run with the likes of Manchester United and Everton in the English Premier League. Rimando will have to settle for being beloved by MLS fans in DC and Utah, surfacing endlessly in Best Save highlight reels, and being seen as perennially underrated by people that pay attention to these things. It’s not a bad legacy as far as they go. Fittingly, he won the MLS Save of the Year award three times since it was created in 2009, but was never once named the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.
Rimando was never the world’s best at anything but he managed to do everything very well for a very long time. He was a stellar shot-stopper, but also solid with his feet. His lack of verticality rarely seemed to hurt him on crosses. Even to the end he was willing to fly off his line: Twice in his final match he charged out at the cannonball that is Jordan Morris, and forced him wide to defuse a potential one-on-one (though one of those was blown offside). His balance and reactions meant that he thrived in the kind of chaotic scrambles that had him making second saves on rebound chances with his face. If the essence of goalkeeping is “whatever keeps the ball out of the net,” Rimando embodied it.
It’s possible that Rimando is not only the best keeper in Major League Soccer history, but its quintessential player. There might be nothing more in the spirit of MLS than someone being told they don’t fit the mold of what makes a soccer player—in this case, sorry, you just lack the physical tools—and still going out and doing it for two decades. Twenty seasons is a hell of a long time to be an anomaly; Rimando was a great one.
Sometimes the dream is more modest: just doing the best you can with whatever you have. No one can ever say that Nick Rimando didn’t do that.
None Shall Pass is an irregular column about goalkeeping.