KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jimmy Nielsen was recovering from an exhausting season in Denmark when thoughts of retirement began gnawing at his mind.
His club, Vejle Boldklub, had just been relegated from the Danish Superliga, leaving Nielsen unhappy and on the brink of hanging it up after more than a decade as a professional.
“I was close,” he said. “I was very close.”
That’s when the 32-year-old goalkeeper got a call that changed everything.
Kansas City manager Peter Vermes was on the other end of the line. Vermes was offering Nielsen a new challenge in America in a city the life-long European had never heard of and a league with which he wasn’t familiar.
In the end, Vermes’ sales pitch pulled the Dane back from the brink, reigniting the passion for the game that Nielsen had lost in the midst of the on-field and off-field turmoil in his home country.
“I was very close to quitting,” he said, “and [Kansas City] took a chance to take me in here on the team. They didn’t know much about me, but I’m trying week after week to pay them back with some good performances.”
And pay Kansas City back he has. Even Vermes couldn’t have imagined the impact Nielsen, aptly nicknamed the White Puma, would have on the squad after stepping into the vacancy created by Keven Hartman’s departure.
Nielsen has seven shutouts in his inaugural season in Major League Soccer, conceding only 20 goals in 17 games despite a dreadful stretch of results in May. Not to mention his ever-growing collection of MLS Save of the Week awards, which is at four at last count and good for tops in MLS.
“In the goal, shot-stopper, managing the game, all those things, he’s been top class,” Vermes said. “But I think the place where I couldn’t comment because I didn’t know him well enough is his leadership with the guys in and out of the locker room. On the field and when we go on the road, the calming presence that he has has been the big plus.”
Needless to say, that presence has been sorely needed.
At one point, Kansas City were winless in eight straight games and their playoff hopes were dwindling. But through it all, as the Wizards defense gave up soft goals and struggled to put the ball in the back of the net, Nielsen stood tall.
He made saves to keep his team in games when it really mattered. His name was bandied about among the leagie's best, and he was named an All-Star. And when Kansas City’s form finally came back around, Nielsen made sure his teammate’s efforts wouldn’t go to waste.
First, the veteran shut out first-place Columbus on the road. Then he put his mark on a draw in Colorado and victories against Manchester United and Toronto.
And now, like Nielsen, Kansas City are back from the brink, just four points away from a playoff spot with 13 games remaining and a rock in goal on whom to rely. All because of a phone call, and a conversation that brought Nielsen back to the game he loves.
“I’ll go knock on Peter’s door right now,” he said, “and hopefully sign another two or three years.”