While his old teammates are in camp, preparing to defend their MLS Cup title, Jimmy Nielsen is trying to build a USL PRO side from the ground up.
Nielsen, who retired from a 17-year professional goalkeeping career shortly after Sporting Kansas City won the 2013 title, has been spending a lot of late nights in his office as he works to build a roster for the expansion Oklahoma City Energy FC.
“I kind of like it,” he told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Thursday. “It's not like you're taking over a roster of 26 players, or like you've had two or three years to build the roster up the way you want it. You're looking for players who can do a good job from the beginning.”
Once he finds them, though, he then has to convince them to sign with a start-up club in the middle of the country – and do it within the constraints of a USL PRO budget.
“The worst thing is when I want a player badly, when I put my heart and soul into giving him a sales speech to come to Oklahoma, spending hours on the phone, e-mails, and the guy chooses to take another place,” he said. “I know it's part of the game, but it will still piss you off a little bit.”
As a new affiliate of Sporting KC, Oklahoma City will get at least two players on loan from Peter Vermes' side. Anyone on the wish list?
“I sent him a letter, but he ignored that,” Nielsen (pictured above with OKC assistant Chris Spendlove) said with a laugh. “I asked him for Graham Zusi, Matt Besler – and I had one more … Paulo Nagamura. He just ignored me.”
With all that recruiting going on, including hosting a player combine this weekend and mining his native Denmark for talent, Nielsen hasn't had much time to miss his playing days or the routine of a preseason camp.
“I'm pretty clear with my mission,” he said. “I'm not looking back. Now I'm coaching, and my full focus is on that.”
His four years playing in Kansas City did a lot to prepare him for his first head coaching job, Nielsen said.
“I learned a lot from Peter and the rest of his coaches,” he said. “They're on top of everything, well-prepared, very organized. It's a very professional environment. I know we're starting from scratch, but I want to try to create a very professional environment as well.”
Nielsen, a fan favorite with Sporting, said he wants the Energy players to have fun as well.
“I want them to come to work with a smile and leave with a smile,” he said. “I want to create a good locker room atmosphere. I'm very critical of what players I'm taking in. I want good guys. I've seen from Sporting how important it is to have a good environment.”
And stylistically, he wants to borrow some from Sporting's high press and some from the defend-and-counter approach teams have used against it.
“We should be able to do the high press and win the ball up high, but that's not always possible,” he said. “So we should be able to switch during the game, from high pressure to sitting back and looking for counterattacks. They should be able to make that transition pretty quickly.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.