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Sporting's solid defense makes life easy for Nielsen

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — If this keeps up, it might be some time before Jimmy Nielsen finds himself up for Save of the Week honors.

Sporting Kansas City’s ’keeper hasn’t faced a shot on goal since the third game of the season, when FC Dallas’ Ricardo Villar scored on a free kick in the 25th minute of Sporting’s 2-1 victory.

That’s an MLS-record 245 consecutive minutes of opposition futility, surpassing the Colorado Rapids’ previous mark of 185 minutes set last year.

“The guys in front of me are making my job very easy,” Nielsen said after Sporting’s 1-0 shutout of the LA Galaxy last Saturday. “Personally, I have to prepare myself differently for the games, compared to last year."

That means getting ready for long stretches where he hardly gets a look at the ball.

“Last year, it was very simple for me to be in the game,” added the Sporting captain, who has four clean sheets in the club’s 5-0-0 start. “This year, I have to prepare myself to be there for one chance, two chances the whole game. Last year, I probably had six or seven saves in each game.”

Nielsen exaggerates just a bit: He averaged 2.55 saves in 31 games over the 2011 regular season. That number still has dropped drastically in the early stages of this season, with Nielsen averaging 1.4 saves per match (seven in five matches.)

Sporting aren’t just sitting back to cut down opponents’ chances, though. The back line of Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Aurélien Collin and Chance Myers is as attack-minded as any in the league, with Sinovic and Myers marauding down the flanks and Collin and Besler getting in the offensive mix in the center of the field.

HIGHLIGHTS: SKC v LA

Which is not to say they can’t collapse en masse into the box when they need to, as they did in frustrating the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane last Saturday, but Sporting’s defenders — and defensive midfielder Júlio César — are adept at winning balls one-on-one on the ground as well as in the air.

Collin made two terrific open-field tackles on LA’s Edson Buddle, and Júlio César did the same to Landon Donovan.

“It sends a message to anyone on the field when you come in that way,” manager Peter Vermes said. “When you do it as cleanly as those were, and you win the ball and keep possession, it breaks the other team mentally for sure, especially those individuals they took the ball from.”

Collin sounded almost apologetic afterward, though, saying he should have broken up the plays before Buddle got into space.

“A tackle is the last — if you don’t have any other solution, you have to tackle,” he said. “Maybe I was late, but thank God I tackled and I got the ball. I could have been in a better place where I don’t have to make the tackle, you know?”

Perhaps, but Sporting will take the ball, the victories and the clean sheets however they come. Even if that means more uneventful outings for their keeper.

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com