LOS ANGELES — Over and over again, they kept coming.
Time after time, different offensive players from the Los Angeles Galaxy came at Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Time after time, he parried each attempt away.
And then, in the third minute of stoppage time, Rimando faced with his greatest challenge. Seconds after defender Tony Beltran was whistled for a foul on LA's Rob Friend, Rimando found himself staring into the eyes of Galaxy forward and Irish international Robbie Keane before a penalty kick. With RSL clinging to a 1-0 lead, and the two teams playing into the final minute of the match, both players knew this was a two-point kick — one that would deliver a valuable three points on the road for RSL, or a crucial home draw for LA in the opening weekend of Major League Soccer.
Keane stepped up to the penalty spot, and — as he had done 16 times last season — prepared to put the ball in the back of the net.
The Irishman went to his left, attempting to squeeze the ball just inside the post. Rimando, as he has done in 26 of the previous 38 penalty kicks he has faced, guessed correctly and dived to his right. As the ball began to curve around him, Rimando punched back with his trailing hand — just enough to catch the ball with the end of his glove — forcing the ball outside the goal post to preserve the lead.
Within a minute, the whistle blew. Real Salt Lake escaped the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., with a win on Joao Plata's 80th minute goal — along with three points in the standings and a dream start to the 2014 campaign that began with a rematch of the 2013 Western Conference semifinal.
It feels great. What I'm really most excited about is the fight the team had. The energy level from the guys in the second half was fantastic.
"Unbelievable. He was controlling things really well," said first-year RSL head coach Jeff Cassar of Rimando after the match. "He didn't give up rebounds, he was good in the air; that's not an easy team when they are getting service into the box. But that's Nick, he's that guy."
The 34-year-old goalkeeper (and former protegé of Miami Fusion netminder Cassar) delivered a win for his long-time goalkeeping coach in Cassar's first match following the departure of Jason Kreis to New York City FC. Because of Rimando's heroics, Cassar became the first coach in RSL franchise history to open with a win. Former coaches Kreis and John Ellinger each earned a draw in their début on the touchline.
"It feels great. What I'm really most excited about is the fight the team had," Cassar said. "The energy level from the guys in the second half was fantastic."
Rimando finished with nine saves, and earned his 109th career shutout to move to three back of former FC Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman's all-time MLS shutouts record. Despite the Galaxy's 20-8 shots advantage, Rimando and his defense repeatedly pushed aside the likes of Keane, Donovan, Gyasi Zardes and Stefan Ishizaki. He was aided by a center back duo of Nat Borchers and Aaron Maund who were playing in their fifth all-time partnership in RSL's system.
Donovan, who normally takes the Galaxy's penalty kicks but deferred to Keane on the night, was held scoreless and sits at 134 career goals in the MLS regular season. The U.S. men's national team stalwart is tied with Jeff Cunningham for the all-time record and must now wait nearly three weeks for his next shot at breaking the mark. Following a home-and-away CCL matchup against Mexico's Club Tijuana, the Galaxy will return to MLS action March 22 against RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
"They were good points for us. (The) LA Galaxy is a very tough team to beat at home," said Rimando, whose team will play at San José next week. "But we came in with the right mentality and got the job done." Sean is a Master's graduate of Syracuse University, and long-time soccer guy who recently moved back to Utah. Follow him on Twitter, @GoaldotSean.