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Associated Press
Real Salt Lake's goalkeeper Nick Rimando celebrates after his teammate Javier Morales, not pictured, scored during the CONCACAF Champions League first leg in Monterrey, Mexico. Rimando will get the start in tonight's second leg.

SANDY — Like most Real Salt Lake fans, Nick Rimando is having a hard time keeping his emotions in check this week.

He's the first to admit that tonight's CONCACAF Champions League match against visiting Monterrey "is probably the most important game I've played in my career."

That's saying a lot for a player who's started 258 career MLS matches, including two starts in MLS Cup finals — one with D.C. United and one with Real Salt Lake.

He's never, however, been this close to leading his club to a continental championship.

"I'm trying to keep my excitement down and just try and concentrate on what we do every week and do the same schedule," said Rimando.

For a player who was basically a castoff from D.C. United in 2007, Rimando's emergence as arguably the best keeper in MLS is as big a contributor to Real Salt Lake's march through the Champions League as anything else.

In fact, if it weren't for his heroics in the 2009 MLS playoffs, RSL would've never qualified for the 2010-2011 Champions League in the first place.

Having reached the pinnacle of MLS in 2009, Rimando refused to become complacent in 2010. He worked harder than ever as Real Salt Lake set a new MLS record for fewest goals allowed with 20. This year he's been just as good, leading RSL to a 4-0 record in league play and a berth in the CCL final.

Some of his best moments of the year came last week in Mexico when he denied Monterrey star striker Humberto Suazo on three separate occasions.

"He's been incredible. For me, he still hasn't quite got the credit he deserves," said RSL defender Chris Wingert.

At this stage in his career, Rimando continues to get better, which says a lot about his continued desire to succeed despite accomplishing so much already.

"It's all about hunger when you reach Nick's age and when you've already got some of the accomplishments that he has under his belt with two championships and other accolades, and records being broken," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "I think Nick gets it, and continues to say I want what this team wants."

Because tonight is a Cup final, the possibility exists that Rimando will need to take center stage like he did in 2009 if the game must be decided on penalty kicks. That scenario can only happen if the game finishes 2-2 after regulation and overtime, and though unlikely, it's not completely impossible.

Kreis likes Real Salt Lake's chances if 120 minutes of soccer doesn't produce a winner.

"Don't we all learn from experiences, we have to say we do. You learn by being in the highest of pressure situations," said Kreis. "For us to have the conference final and the MLS Cup final both decided on penalties, I would say has to give us confidence going into the situation. I'm very hopeful we don't have to go into that situation."

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Rimando would prefer to win the match in regulation, too, but he's always up for a challenge — and stopping PKs is as tough as it gets.

Winning the CONCACAF title would be one more feather in Rimando's cap, not bad for someone many believed was on his way out of the league in 2007.

"The last couple of years I've been playing my best soccer, and that's consistency. I think it was good to get out of D.C. Sometimes you have to change environments to step your level up," he said.

Email: jedward@desnews.com