(Today) Blake vs. (Age 27) Rimando

Ask Tim Howard about longtime friend and US Men’s National Team rival, and the answer is unambiguous: “Nick Rimando’s the greatest MLS goalkeeper there has been.”

Today, there is so much evidence to support Howard’s opinion that it might as well be fact. Rimando, like former DC United teammate and Union stalwart Brian Carroll, has made a career of consistent excellence. But early on, the UCLA product had to prove himself over and over. As Miami Fusion’s third-round draft pick, he was not expected to steal minutes from Jeff Cassar, but he did. After moving to DC United when Miami was contracted, Rimando out-competed Troy Perkins to lock down the starting role and (thanks to a Carroll penalty) lead DC to an MLS Cup. This earned him a full season as the number one in the capital, but a year later Perkins was back between the sticks.

Then, a truly bizarre series of events, Rimando and Freddy Adu were traded to Real Salt Lake. The young franchise quickly flipped Rimando to New York for future considerations but re-acquired him two weeks later when Scott Garlick suddenly retired.

Nick Rimando was 27 years old.

He did not get angry. He got better.

And better.

And better.

Andre Blake was the first overall draft pick in 2014. After trading up to take the UConn goalie, Philadelphia Union head coach John Hackworth said, “He can do stuff now that people in our league can’t do.” In two years at Connecticut, Blake had been a phenomenon. Even though he was raw, the big, agile backstop was already on the Jamaican national team’s radar. After DC United traded the number one pick to Philly, Ben Olsen said, “I think he’s the real thing… there was a lot of interest in the pick.”

In short, everybody knew Blake was special.

The Union, however, surprised many by acquiring Algerian international Rais Mbolhi to start ahead of their newly acquired shot-stopper. Mbolhi’s tenure was marked by inconsistency, and after shaking off nagging knee injuries Blake took over as the 2015 season wound down.

His second start was his first shutout.

His fourth start was a record-setter: 10 saves against New England.

 

Blake won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in his first full season as the starter. He led Jamaica to the Gold Cup final and brought home the Golden Gloves award for best goalie in the tournament a year later.

The Union had so much trust in Blake that they opened the 2018 season with one of the youngest back lines in MLS history. They got younger when veteran left back Fabinho went down with an injury and 18-year old Matthew Real stepped into the breach. And, almost inconceivably, they got younger still when another 18-year old, Mark McKenzie, started for injured center back Jack Elliott against FC Dallas in April. The Union back line was repeatedly breached, but the stalwart goalkeeper made eight saves to keep them in the match until a surprising penalty call gave Dallas its breakthrough.

At 27 years old, Blake was the oldest player in the defense by nearly three full years.

The early professional careers of Nick Rimando and Andre Blake trace arcs of success, though that success takes very different forms. For Blake, it has been one of individual achievement and the fulfillment of ever-increasing expectations. Even when, as a rookie, the Union goalie was sitting behind the unexpectedly signed Algerian international Rais Mbolhi, there no doubt that his chance would soon come.

Expectation, as Freddy Adu -- the man that drove the trade which landed Nick Rimando at RSL -- can attest, is no guarantee of achievement. Blake had to embrace his role as a backup, then he had to overcome a series of knee injuries that threatened to derail the key second year of his MLS career. And in 2017, the injury bug bit his hand just as the big goalkeeper was hitting the best form of his life and leading Jamaica to the Gold Cup final. Every roadblock has been overcome, and now Blake has solidified himself as one of the best goalies in MLS, fulfilling the promise of his formidable talent.

For Nick Rimando, early success took the form of team achievement. Even when the California native demonstrated his prowess in goal, questions about his height and athleticism seemed to trump his performances. The goalkeeper position is often the most stable on a roster, and a club that trusts their goalie rarely rotates him. Yet, Rimando’s leash at DC United was perpetually short. After stepping in late in the 2004 season, celebrating a title, and owning the number one role a year later, Rimando was back on the bench in 2006. A benching can hurt confidence, but three trades in the span of a few months suggest broad skepticism about a player’s talent. That Rimando soldiered on through such an ordeal at age 27 and became the undisputed greatest netminder in MLS history speaks volumes for his character, and it highlights how much growth can occur relatively late in a goalie’s career. Rimando was never showered with accolades at a young age -- he fought on through constant swirling questions to lead Real Salt Lake to an MLS title in 2009, and now he fights on because he still wants to win. “I’m not done yet and that’s what drives me,” Rimando recently told MLSsoccer.com.

Andre Blake may never reach the milestones that Rimando has achieved. He may not even stay in Major League Soccer his whole career. But at age 27, Blake already has the validation that Rimando lacked. For Blake, however, this means little in comparison to what Rimando had at the same age: A MLS Championship. Even as the praise has poured in over the Jamaican’s brief professional career, he has never rested on his laurels: Each season has brought constant, subtle improvements to his game. In 2017, it was more consistent with aerial dominance. This season, as the Union transitioned to a possession-oriented build-up, Blake has exhibited a confidence playing with his feet (both of them!) that was noticeably absent at a younger age. And there is little doubt that Blake will continue to improve.

For all the differences in external expectations, paths traveled, and awards won by age 27, Blake and Rimando share a common drive to be better, and to win. And much as that unfailing, unflinching drive has taken Rimando to rarified heights in MLS at age 38, it will also carry Blake onward and upward. Day after day, year after year. 

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