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Playoffs in Profile: A career rebirth for SKC's Nielsen

Playoffs in Profile: Jimmy Nielsen

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As the MLS Cup playoffs continue, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup. In the seventh installment, Sporting Kansas City beat writer Andrew Wiebe looks at goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who took over in net for a legend and has already won over his doubters. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For someone known for being levelheaded, it’s ironic that Jimmy Nielsen is in Kansas City in no small part because he lost his head.

Kansas City manager Peter Vermes and goalkeeper coach John Pascarella were scrambling to find a replacement for Kevin Hartman, with whom contract talks had broken down during the 2010 preseason, when they stumbled upon a YouTube clip of Nielsen during a 48-hour research binge to vet the Dane.

He was playing in a small-sided game with his Danish club at the time, Vejle, when a teammate with a reputation for brutish play in training forced a sliding save out of Nielsen before circling back around and delivering a ill-advised kick from behind.

What happened next wasn’t typical of Nielsen, and it certainly wasn’t pretty.

“It wasn’t hard, just a little kick, but Jimmy made a 10-yard dash after the guy and beat the living crap out of him right there on the field,” Pascarella said.

“I just lost my brain,” Nielsen admitted. “It’s not something I’m proud of.”

It is, however, at least a small part of why he finds himself in Kansas City putting the finishing touches on a second straight standout season, with just two games separating the club from an unlikely run to MLS Cup.

Although Nielsen’s momentary loss of control may have been a red flag for some, it signified something bigger to Vermes and played a key role in the narrative that brought the “White Puma” to Major League Soccer.

“I loved it,” Vermes said. “I told Jimmy that when we signed him.”

Nielsen’s résumé was impressive and his ability in net unquestioned, but it was his unconditional demand for excellence from both himself and his teammates wrapped up in 15 seconds of raw video footage that helped seal the deal for Kansas City.

“This was just a practice session,” Pascarella said. “When you realize a guy is that passionate about the game and wants to win everything no matter who he is playing against, that’s a guy I want on my side.”

An accrimonious arrival in Kansas City

It’s easy to forget now, but Nielsen’s arrival in Kansas City in February 2010 rubbed many Wizards supporters the wrong way.

Hartman had started all 90 league matches for the then-Wizards from 2007 to 2009 following 10 decorated years with the LA Galaxy. But negotiations between the club and veteran goalkeeper stalled from the start, a development that frustrated the fanbase and forced Vermes into what was at the time an unpopular move.

Despite consternation from fans, Hartman was out. And, as Nielsen put it, here was this “stupid goalkeeper from Denmark” arriving from across the Atlantic to replace a league legend.

“I know there were a lot of people that were angry when Hartman left,” Nielsen said. “Fair enough.”

As it turned out, though, the deal worked out beautifully for both sides.

Vermes traded Hartman to FC Dallas in exchange for a 2012 draft pick, and the veteran helped lead FCD to MLS Cup last season. Back in Kansas City, Nielsen picked up right where “El Gato” had left off, starting 29 league games, recording 10 shutouts and rapidly integrating himself into the culture of the club.

And with the performances piling up, the diehards in the stands gradually came around. Clean sheets and timely saves aside, it helped that Nielsen was such a compelling character off the field.

He is the first to admit he isn’t perfect and doesn’t expect perfection from the people around him. He’s a former gambling addict who earned the nickname “Casino Jimmy” back in Denmark, and he still has the occasional smoke after training. In short, he’s human.  

But he’s also gregarious, humble and generous with his time, a family man and extrovert who delights in fan interaction and owns one of the most entertaining Twitter accounts around in a league known for its social-media friendly players. 

Even more importantly, Nielsen fit right into Kansas City’s locker room.

In less than two full seasons, he has become a key cog in Vermes’ rebuilding effort, redefining Sporting’s position and stature in the league and guiding the club to where it stands now: up two goals on aggregate heading into the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday at Livestrong Sporting Park (8 pm ET, Fox Soccer).

In the process, Hartman’s exit has become an afterthought for a fanbase that’s embraced Nielsen as one of their own and was outraged when he was struck in the face by a bobblehead at Livestrong Sporting Park in August.

“What people don’t see and what I can measure is his attitude and his leadership,” Vermes said. “It really goes unnoticed within the group. He’s very bought into the organization and he’s very bought into the team. He’s a team guy. That is sort of infectious.”

Adapting his game to MLS

Truth be told, Nielsen had no idea what he was getting into when Kansas City extended an offer to come to the United States nearly two years ago.

He was on the outs at Vejle, considering retirement after his most frustrating season as a professional and looking for any opportunity that would get him out of his situation in Denmark.

As so often happens, things moved quickly from there. Vermes called, negotiations ensued, a visa was acquired and Nielsen was on a plane to Kansas City with little to no idea about what awaited him.

“I had no clue what to expect,” Nielsen said. “I was told that MLS was for retirement, the league was bad and blah blah blah. Screw those people who said that. This is a fantastic league. It’s at least as good, if not better, than the level I came from.”

It was certainly a different style of soccer, though, and Nielsen and Pascarella have worked together over the last year and a half to adapt the 34-year-old’s style of play to a league known for its pace and physicality.

Since he was already blessed with a keen sense of positioning and quick reactions, Pascarella thought Nielsen could afford to be more aggressive against strikers that often lacked the precision of some of their European counterparts.         

“The games are a little bit different the way we play and in some ways less refined,” Pascarella said. “His positioning was already very good and his timing was outstanding. When you have that to work with, everything just falls into place.”

Instead of staying rooted to his line to discourage forwards from curling a shot around him or going for the chip, the two found that Nielsen could get away with taking a more advanced starting position, cutting down angles and creating the illusion that he has every opening covered.

“I try to take up a lot of space,” he said.

It was a breath of fresh air for the veteran following a ill-fated, six-month spell at Leicester City in 2007 during which he said the coaching staff tried to fundamentally change his makeup, an experiment that resulted in zero appearances for the club and a hasty exit.

There has been no such struggle of wills in Kansas City.

“John did an excellent job with me compared to when I was in Leicester City,” he said. “They bought me for a lot of money, and they wanted to change me completely. Here, they let me play and let me be who I am.”

The young and the restless

Kansas City might have been the most compelling attacking side in MLS this season, but no one was surprised when Nielsen walked away with the team’s Most Valuable Player award over the likes of Omar Bravo, Kei Kamara and Graham Zusi.

And while he’s may be a long shot when it comes to the race for Goalkeeper of the Year, Nielsen has still allowed just 1.10 goals per game this season, good enough for sixth in the league.

He’s gotten those results with one of the league’s youngest back lines shielding him (average age under 24) and without the bravado of some of his more boisterous counterparts.

He doesn’t berate his defenders or split eardrums with fiery rants. Instead, he delivers information calmly and without emotional undercurrents so the players in front of him absorb the message instead of focusing on the messenger.

Nielsen, after all, has two young daughters at home, putting him in an ideal position to provide guidance to his youthful charges.

“I don’t want to say he’s like my dad just because he’s so much older than me,” defender Matt Besler said, “but we have so much respect for him that when he does raise his voice or talk to you, you respect what he’s saying and listen. He’s more disappointed in you than mad at you.”

Fortunately, Nielsen hasn’t had much reason be disappointed or raise his voice this season. After giving up 19 goals during the club’s disastrous 10-game road trip to start the season, Kansas City have given up just 21 goals in their last 24 games, fueling their rise to the top of the Eastern Conference and the brink of the conference finals.

And despite the YouTube clip that helped bring him to Kansas City, Nielsen is a people person at his core, a teacher who delights in his teammate’s success far more than his own and makes sure the focus is always on the club.

It’s no surprise then that he doesn’t waver even for a second when asked what life will hold once his playing career ends. Nielsen is determined to coach, although he’s not sure whether that will end up being in the United States, Denmark or elsewhere.

First, though, he’s got his eye on leading Kansas City to their first MLS Cup appearance since 2004 and sticking around for however long Vermes will have him.

“I have no plans about retirement — yet,” Nielsen said. “It will come one day, but when I look at other goalkeepers in the league, I see Kevin Hartman, Kasey Keller and a few others who are up there in age.

“If I could play until I was 41 like Kasey, I would be very happy. I’m enjoying life right now.”