Nielsen the backbone behind Sporting KC's stingy run

Jimmy Nielsen (HOU-SKC)

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Ask Peter Vermes about Jimmy Nielsen’s run of stingy form this year, and Sporting Kansas City’s manager is quick to praise the veteran Danish goalkeeper’s intelligence, experience and presence.

Ask Nielsen, who was voted to the 2012 All-Star team by the fans, and he deflects everything onto the 10 guys in front of him on any given night.

“We’re extremely well-organized,” Nielsen, who takes eight league clean sheets into Wednesday night’s game at Houston (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online), told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Tuesday. “This team has been together for a long time now. They know each other very well. I don’t see any weak spots at all.”

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On one hand, the numbers do bear out Nielsen’s assertion. While his .89 goals against average is third in the league, and his 75 percent save ratio ranks fifth, he’s tied for 13th in the save column with 47. He also benefitted from Sporting’s league-record streak of not allowing a shot on goal for 345 straight minutes early in the season.

“It makes my job easier when everyone in front of me is doing well,” Nielsen said.

Still, as his three Save of the Week honors (and nomination this week for a fourth) indicate, Sporting’s captain – whose eight shutouts are one more than his entire 2011 total and just two short of the 10 he recorded in 2010 – excels at stopping shots when Kansas City’s defense does give up an opportunity.

And while he’s capable of sprawling, acrobatic stops – as befits his “White Puma” nickname – he’s also just as likely to stuff an opponent’s attack with a body block or foot save because he’s already in position to shut things down.

“He plays as a very big goalkeeper,” Vermes said on Tuesday. “Big presence in the goal. And I’ll tell you what – the guy has a great work ethic, in training and everything else, and that pays dividends.”

Nielsen has also adapted well to the MLS game since joining the then-Wizards in 2010 from the Danish top flight, Vermes said.

“He’s a guy that has really felt extremely comfortable in this situation very quickly,” Vermes said. “I think he’s just getting better with age, more and more comfortable in our league – not only what the league is like but also in the way we play.”

Nielsen’s play in goal is a big reason Sporting are 11-5-2, atop the Eastern Conference and in the final of the US Open Cup. He hasn’t conceded a goal in his three Cup outings, and going into Wednesday’s match, he has three straight shutouts across all competitions.

That team success, he said, is more important than his individual numbers.

“If you have a clean sheet, that’s great. It’s a good bonus,” he said. “The point is, are we winning our games? If we win 3-2, I’m extremely happy. If we win 1-0, I’m extremely happy. It’s not a goal for me personally, when I step on the field, to have a clean sheet.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.