Tuesday, December 10, 2013

So long, Jimmy Nielsen

Posted By on Tue, Dec 10, 2013 at 4:40 PM

Jimmy Nielsen, seen here stopping a Ned Grabavoy shot during the MLS Cup final, retired from soccer Monday
  • Gary Rohman via Sporting Kansas City
  • Jimmy Nielsen, seen here stopping a Ned Grabavoy shot during the MLS Cup final, retired from soccer Monday

Kevin Hartman was among the highest-profile players to don a Kansas City Wizards jersey. He spent three seasons as the Wizards goalkeeper, one of many stops during a career that made him among the longest-serving and better-known players in Major League Soccer history.

After the 2009 season when the Wizards failed to make the playoffs, Hartman couldn't agree to a new contract with the Wizards and left the team.

Enter Jimmy Nielsen. Hardly anyone in the United States knew about Nielsen. He was 32 years old when he came to the Wizards, having spent a career plying his trade in Denmark, a country that produces many good soccer players but has a league that's overlooked compared with those in countries like England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Nielsen left a troubled past behind in Denmark, including a well-documented gambling addiction.

Coming to the United States was no sure thing for the veteran goalkeeper. He was joining a struggling team in the Wizards that was set to start its third season of play in a makeshift soccer field in the outfield of a baseball stadium. He was joining a league that, at the time, struggled so much to gain any relevancy in the United States that it went all-in to get English star David Beckham to play for one of its teams, changing salary-cap rules in order to do so.

Nielsen made his Wizards debut on March 27, 2010, a mild evening at CommunityAmerica Ballpark against D.C. United. Dressed in yellow from head to toe, Nielsen bounded toward the goal he would defend that evening, clapping and acknowledging the local fans seated behind the goal as though he had been playing in Kansas City for years.

In those days, the hardcore Wizards supporters, known as the Cauldron, was a very small group, and it didn't take much from a player to win over those fans. Nielsen's acknowledgment of the Cauldron throughout that evening seemed to earn him the backing of those fans, to say nothing of a 4-0 shutout performance against D.C. United to open up the season.

The Wizards didn't fare well that season; they missed the playoffs again, though it wasn't due to Nielsen's play. Yet, he was firmly established as a fan favorite on a team that was used to a cast of rotating characters. It seemed that few Wizards stuck around for long.

The next season, the Wizards would become Sporting Kansas City and play in a new stadium. Sporting Park would give the long-suffering Major League Soccer franchise a distinct measure of credibility. But plenty of teams have moved into slick new stadiums, yet haven't enjoyed the type of attendant support that Sporting Kansas City has received. Winning has quite a bit to do with it; Sporting Kansas City has been among the top MLS teams since 2011, culminating in Saturday's MLS Cup title.

But Sporting Kansas City's players seem to enjoy an attachment with their fans that's unique to, and perhaps closer than, the relationship the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals have with their followers. 

And Nielsen was perhaps the most popular player with the hometown crowd. He's one of only a few from Saturday's championship team who once wore a Wizards jersey. Cauldron members created chants that pay homage to the goalkeeper. A couple of fans try to dress and style their dyed platinum-blond hair like him.

Kansas City's sports history has few players who have left a long-term mark on their franchises. Yes, there are many who have been standout players during their time here, but many of them come and go. 

Nielsen might be Sporting Kansas City's George Brett, the type of player who establishes himself in Kansas City, a figure who seems like he's here to stay. Unlike Brett, who spent 21 years with the Royals to cement his place in Kansas City's pro-sports history, Nielsen did it in four short years.

There won't be a fifth year.

On Monday, he announced he wouldn't play any more. Nielsen retired, having won a championship for the first time.

Sporting Kansas City very nearly lost Saturday's MLS Cup game. When 120 minutes of play couldn't break a 1-1 deadlock against Real Salt Lake, the game moved to penalty kicks. 

Real Salt Lake was one goal away from winning when their midfielder Sebastien Velasquez took measure of Nielsen, decided to fire the ball to the right side of the net, only to watch pink-clad Nielsen guess correctly and lunge toward Velasquez's shot to keep Sporting Kansas City alive. 

Just a few shots later and the MLS Cup went to Sporting Kansas City.

Nielsen's save may go down among the brightest moments in local pro-sports history. He later enjoyed a champagne shower in the Kansas City locker room as his teammates celebrated. 

But something didn't seem quite right about Nielsen afterward. Maybe it was the broken ribs that dogged him during the game. Maybe he knew Saturday's game would be his last.

In either case, he went out on top.


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