Soccer quandary: When is it OK for a goalkeeper to play hurt in the biggest game of the year?
There’s a fine line in professional sports between championship glory and epic failure.
And Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen toed that line last week.
The White Puma, who announced his retirement on Monday, was celebrated as a hero after his team’s MLS Cup triumph on penalty kicks last Saturday. But he just as well could’ve turned into of the biggest goats in MLS Cup history had a few bounces not gone his way.
Now a week removed from SKC's MLS Cup win, it remains one of the most interesting conundrums left by the final: When is it acceptable for a starting goalkeeper to play hurt?
The 36-year-old Nielsen played in the biggest game of the year on Dec. 7 with a hairline fracture in one rib on his right side and possibly in a second one as well (there was damage, but it wasn’t conclusive from an MRI, according to the club).
And it showed on the field.
WATCH: Nielsen takes in cup win
Nielsen is already not the most mobile of goalkeepers, but to watch him against Real Salt Lake, it was as if the game was being played in super slo-mo. He was struggling to move and kick the ball with the cold, icy conditions surely not making things any easier when he was clearly beat on three RSL shots that kissed the post.
“When you're 100 percent, a lot of times you're not thinking about anything,” Chivas USA veteran goalkeeper Dan Kennedy told MLSsoccer.com. “And if you have limitations, you're protecting against them. You go into the game with a different mindset: 'I've got to make sure I play safe.'"
So should a goalkeeper with a rib fracture have even played in the final? Even though Nielsen’s back-up, Eric Kronberg, only had six competitive starts this year (none in MLS play), wouldn’t a healthy Kronberg have been a better option?
While it may look like an unnecessary gamble to the objective outsider, the goalkeeping fraternity back the decision by SKC manager Peter Vermes to play Nielsen.
“As a professional athlete you rarely play at 100 percent,” says the now-retired MLS goalkeeping legend Kevin Hartman. “Kronberg hasn’t played a huge number of minutes and Peter [Vermes], Chet [North, head athletic trainer] and the staff must have felt comfortable enough with Jimmy’s belief that he could play, to go ahead and start Nielsen.”
Vermes confirmed after the match that he was relying on Nielsen to let him know if he was unable to continue and he never contemplated bringing Kronberg into the match.
But according to Kennedy, there was no chance that Nielsen was ever going to throw in the towel.
“In that moment, if that decision is being made [to replace Nielsen], it's being made by someone other than Jimmy,” Kennedy told MLSsoccer.com. “I maybe played in moments where it wasn't beneficial for the team, but as a pro we're fighting for every minute and particularly in a cup final. Jimmy's worked too hard to give that moment up to anybody else.”
WATCH: Nielsen's retirement speech
While things may have worked out for Nielsen and Vermes on the day, Kennedy recalls when they didn’t for one of the all-time world greats, ex-Manchester United ‘keeper Edwin van der Sar. At one point during a UEFA Champions League match, Kennedy recalls Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand imploring with van der Sar to leave the field after the Dutchman insisted on staying in the game.
But back in MLS, the Portland Timbers also opted to stick with Donovan Ricketts despite the fact that he was playing with a broken thumb. Could we say for sure that the injury didn't come into play on the goal that proved the nail in the Timbers' coffin during the playoffs? (Watch it here.)
“As a coach you sometimes have to make a tough decision for the players because a player’s going to do whatever it takes,” said RSL goalkeeping coach Jeff Cassar, who admitted he noticed Nielsen “was playing much safer than he normally does” during MLS Cup.
“You have to ask for complete honesty. ‘Can you perform at the level needed?’” Cassar continued. “He must have said, ‘Peter, I can do this and I can get through this.’ But he was moving in the second half a little bit different and we were trying to get as many shots on target as we could.”
If one of those RSL shots had gone in instead of hitting the post, would Vermes have been second-guessed about his decision to start Nielsen? Would we even have found out about the hairline fracture?
“Goalkeepers are just warriors,” Cassar said. “And they're always dealing with something. Hats off to [Nielsen] for playing and probably if it wasn't the final he might've taken the day off. But that was the magnitude of the game.”