KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Almost exactly 16 months to the day after he helped deliver a US Open Cup to Kansas City, Jimmy Nielsen stood atop a platform in Sporting Park’s northeast corner, shook up a can of white spray paint and committed the most rewarding vandalism of his life.
Minutes after leading his team past Real Salt Lake in the wildest penalty shootout in recent memory – a 7-6 win in 10 rounds after a 1-1 draw – Nielsen scrawled a massive 2013 under the MLS Cup header much to the delight of the frozen, but hearty, Sporting faithful, officially commemorating the second championship in club history 13 years after manager Peter Vermes helped deliver the first.
And after celebrating with his teammates amid a glut of champagne and beer bottles in Sporting KC’s tarp-protected locker room – and even lighting up a victory cigarette for good measure – the fan favorite and club captain was asked to put the accomplishment in perspective time and time again.
And time and time again, Nielsen’s emotions got the best of him, choking him up and forcing the 36-year-old to collect his thoughts, after which he invariably returned with one central message.
“Four years ago when I came here, I wanted to be champion again,” he told reporters. “Of course, I know I’m not playing another 10 years. This here is a big moment, it’s a proud moment.”
And perhaps nobody deserved the honor more. For most of 90 minutes at a frigid Sporting Park, where temperatures dipped below 20 degrees, Nielsen looked like a man twice his age, battling at least one broken rib (with a second possible but unclear on X-rays) suffered in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final and frozen turf that made the most simple play look like a battle against father time.
“It was very tough conditions out there. It was pretty weird to be in that one end, where you can’t find your [footing],” Nielsen, who changed cleats at halftime in an attempt to combat the conditions, said. “I could barely kick the ball. It was like ice skating, and I have a feeling that if this was a regular-season game the game probably would have been canceled.”
Of course, it wasn’t.
But thanks to both posts and a few key saves, Nielsen kept it together for 120 minutes with Alvaro Saborio’s golazo the only strike against him. It was enough to get Sporting to a marathon penalty shootout that they would eventually win after the Dane parried the efforts of Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez – the latter with the game on the line – and Lovel Palmer smacked the crossbar.
His secret weapon? A scouting report he appeared to be consulting between kicks. Emphasis on appeared.
“I had a piece of paper, but I didn’t look at it,” Nielsen said. “Apparently one of their players got pretty angry about that paper. He gave me a pretty nasty message about that paper.”
But it worked, and Sporting will gladly let Real Salt Lake gritch after the same man who presided over last August’s Open Cup shootout came through again with even more on the line.
“Jimmy just has something special about him,” defender Matt Besler said. “He comes up big at the right times.”
If the past three years are any indication, there may be plenty more of these times in the coming years for Sporting Kansas City. The question is whether or not their captain will be around to enjoy them.
In the weeks leading up to the final, Nielsen was careful to parry questions about his future, but admitted time was running out on his playing career. On Saturday night, he once again pushed the decision back, but Sporting fans will certainly hope there’s more club-endorsed graffiti in his future.
“Tomorrow we’re doing our physicals and Monday I’m going on a vacation,” Nielsen said. “Then I’ll figure out that with Mr. Vermes.”