MLS Breakdown: Nick Rimando offers familiar touchstone during First Kick upheaval
New and shiny things dominated the First Kick discussion this weekend, but a reliable, seasoned veteran stole the show in the final few moments on Saturday night.
Truth be told, Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando distinguished himself well before he secured a 1-0 victory over LA Galaxy with yet another penalty save.
Rimando's array of match-preserving stops protected RSL's parity on the night and placed the visitors in a position to benefit when Joao Plata slotted them in front 10 minutes from time. A late penalty decision – given for a purported push by Tony Beltran on Galaxy substitute Rob Friend – threw all of those efforts into peril. Robbie Keane stepped to the spot to take it.
“I hadn't studied him at all,” Rimando told reporters after the game. “I just knew he likes to stutter-step from seeing him take penalty kicks in the league. I just stood my ground, I know he likes to look up and see where the goalkeeper goes, so I just stayed up as long as I could and reacted to his ball."
The extra beat made all of the difference. Keane hesitated as expected before stroking his effort toward the left post. Rimando dove to his right, made his ninth save of the night and registered his 12th penalty stop in 38 regular-season attempts.
“It was around the corner, it was a good save and that’s the way it goes,” Keane told reporters.
Keane isn't the only one to find himself flummoxed by Rimando in the past or the present. The home side generated ample opportunities in front of goal (Landon Donovan posed a menace in his hybrid role on the left) only to find Rimando in the sort of form required to secure his 109th career shutout.
“Unbelievable,” Real Salt Lake coach Jeff Cassar said as he reflected upon Rimando's performance. “He was controlling the ball, didn't give up rebounds, was unbelievable in the air. This is not an easy team to play against when they are getting service into the box and then obviously the penalty kick save was amazing, but that is Nick, he is that guy.”
Five Points – Week 1
1. Seattle relies on the right side to defeat Sporting: Sporting manager Peter Vermes omitted starting fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic with one eye on the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Liga MX leaders Cruz Azul looming in midweek. Myers and Sinovic both needed the rest to nurse lingering knocks, but their absence provided an opportunity for Sounders FC to push its fullbacks into dangerous areas and stretch Sporting's midfield trio.
Most of the success came on the right side where DeAndre Yeldin took approximately half of his touches on the day in the attacking half of the field. His desire to venture into the Sporting half offered necessary width with Lamar Neagle and Marco Pappa both ineffectual. Yedlin worked himself onto the byline on three separate occasions without any tangible reward. Late substitute Sean Okoli benefited from those forays by pushing into those areas in search of the winner. Okoli careened toward the byline and popped an enticing cross into the penalty area. The ensuing result – a bungled Sporting clearance at the near post, a Clint Dempsey header off the bar and Chad Barrett's late winner in the 1-0 home triumph – highlighted of pursuing those avenues until they produced the desired benefits and yielded yet another late show against Sporting.
2. New York coach Mike Petke takes the blame for defeat. But is it warranted?: Petke opted to leave turf-shy Thierry Henry (Achilles) and Jamison Olave (knees) back in New Jersey for the 4-1 drubbing at Vancouver on Saturday. New York's insipid display – primarily caused by Vancouver's fluid movement through the middle third with the impressive Sebastián Fernández and second-half substitute Pedro Morales both floating into dangerous areas time and time again – certainly raised questions about the propriety of the decision and the structure of the side (the Whitecaps played through the Red Bulls' flat lines all day with their 4-2-3-1 setup).
Petke held his hands up and shouldered the blame, but the logic behind the personnel choices remained crystal clear. This Red Bulls side cannot afford to risk its fragile stars in these situations, even if it results in a heavy defeat. The idea of losing one game proves far less daunting than the prospect of losing Henry and Olave (examine that defensive performance in his absence and ponder the potential ramifications of an extended spell on the sidelines, for instance) for any length of time as the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup chases crank into gear.
3. Columbus shows the early results from its philosophical shift: Crew coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter promised a new era. His revamped side certainly delivered with a fluid display to eviscerate out-of-sorts D.C. United and register a 3-0 victory at RFK Stadium on Saturday night. The stirring performance stemmed from an increased emphasis on possession and a concerted effort to use it wisely.
Berhalter afforded Federico Higuain with the freedom to roam wherever he pleased to link the play in central midfield in the revamped 4-2-3-1 setup. Higuain's roving approach – plus the tidy movement of U.S. under-20 midfielder Wil Trapp to plug the gaps – ensured the Crew located options in possession. And once the Crew obtained the ball, they strung together the sort of sequences required to generate chances. Need proof of the effectiveness of those alterations? Take a look at the one-touch buildup to cut United open on Jairo Arrieta's opener. If the Crew can cobble together similar combinations on a regular basis, then they will pose all sorts of problems for the opposition as the season progresses.
4. Philadelphia finds its footing in midfield: John Hackworth's retooled group in the middle of the park faced a daunting test at Providence Park. They just about passed it, too. Brian Carroll – except for his part in Gastón Fernández's late equalizer in the 1-1 draw on Saturday night – held his ground as the deep-lying player. Maurice Edu scampered through the middle to close gaps and provide outlets. Vincent Nogueira scurried around tirelessly to find the ball in good areas and shirk his markers. Their diligence in midfield allowed the Union to maintain a foothold in possession until Jack McInerney's opener and provide a platform for Cristian Maidana to present a persistent threat to the Timbers. One game isn't enough to consider the job done, but the early returns suggest the Union can rely on its work through the middle of the park far more than it could a year ago.
5. Don't look away from Chivas USA: Intrigue beckons around every corner in Carson. Erick Torres scores goals. Thomas McNamara and his wonderful mullet does too. Wilmer Cabrera implemented a structure. And this group – warts and all – at least offers a far higher entertainment value than in years past. Those efforts may not yield a playoff berth at the end of the season, but it will at least provide a few bright moments – including the 3-2 victory over Chicago on Sunday – to navigate through a difficult set of circumstances.
BONUS: Replacement refs survive First Kick: The men in the middle just about muddled through the mire despite some touch and go moments. The assistant referees wobbled their way to full time. There were no Seahawks-Packers incidents, though. The big question now: how, if at all, will the events influence the PRO-PSRA negotiations this week?