Ask Jimmy Nielsen for his proudest achievement as a goalkeeper this season, and he doesn't bring up the individual accomplishments.
Not his six Saves of the Week. Not his 15 shutouts, one shy of Tony Meola's MLS record, nor his club-record .79 goals-against average. Not even the sprawling stop he made on Seattle's Christian Tiffert in the shootout stage of the US Open Cup final on the way to Sporting Kansas City's first silverware since 2004.
The White Puma might be the Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year for 2012, but Sporting's 35-year-old captain is still a team-first leader.
“The US Open Cup stands out for me,” he told MLSsoccer.com by phone after learning that he was named the league's top 'keeper. “That was a big moment, a very proud moment for the team, the fans, the ownership group, everyone.”
Nielsen does take pride in the award, especially after playing every minute of every MLS match and all but one Cup match this season, but he's quick to spread credit around – especially to the league's stingiest defense, anchored by Defender of the Year Matt Besler, which conceded only 27 goals all season.
“The players you're playing against week after week, the coaches, the media who follow soccer – it's a big honor that they have voted me to be Goalkeeper of the Year,” he said. “At the same time, I think you know me. I cannot take credit for all of that. We had a great season. We didn't give up many goals this year, and that's a credit to the whole team. That makes me look good with a lot of shutouts.”
It wasn't just the back four, which also included First XI selection Aurélien Collin, who made Nielsen's life easier. Behind Sporting's high-pressure 4-3-3 formation, he made just 77 saves – tied for 15th in the league – in racking up his 15 clean sheets.
“You need solid players in front of you,” he said. “You need players who work hard for their goalkeeper, and they were all doing that. This was absolutely everybody's award.”
And Nielsen, who was close to giving up the game before joining the then-Wizards in 2010, has been energized anew by his club and individual success.
“I can't wait to get back out there and get started,” he said. “I'm looking forward to it, and I think we'll have – no, I know we'll have a great season.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.