A legend in Sporting KC lore, veteran goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen opens next chapter on career

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The cheers and chants of “One more year!” began as soon as Jimmy Nielsen took the microphone. He smiled, raised his hand to still the crowd.

“No, no, no,” he said. “Hold it. Hold it, please. Please. Please. Please.”

Then he said the goodbye that had been in the back of his mind for weeks – a decision finally made for him on Saturday, when Lovel Palmer's last-chance spot kick for Real Salt Lake smacked off the crossbar to end the longest shootout in MLS Cup history and deliver Sporting Kansas City's first postseason title since 2000.

“This is a very happy moment, and a very proud moment,” Sporting's veteran goalkeeper told supporters on Monday night, “not only for me but for the whole organization and everyone. And I don't want to be a party-killer or anything, but as we know, all good things come to an end, and so does my career. And today, tonight, I'm going to announce my retirement from professional soccer.”

The capacity crowd at Union Station broke into cheers – not because of Nielsen's departure after four years in Kansas City, but because Sporting's captain goes out on top with the league championship he had wanted for so long.

“Of course, it's not a decision I made today,” he told reporters afterward. “I've been thinking of it for a while now. And when we got that championship, I had a feeling that that was it. I woke up this morning, had a long meeting with Peter [Vermes, Sporting's manager]. We shook hands, gave each other a big hug and said, 'Thank you for four amazing years.'”

But while Vermes was privy to Nielsen's decision, his teammates found out only when he announced it at Monday night's victory party.

“I was surprised and stunned a little bit,” center back Matt Besler said, “but I'm very, very happy for Jimmy. I congratulate him on his career. He's an unbelievable person. He'll go down as a legend. He'll always have a place on this team and in this city.”

And, Sporting president Robb Heineman suggested, with the club as well.

“I wish him all the best,” Heineman said, “and I think there's a very good chance you're going to see Jimmy Nielsen doing something with the Sporting organization in the very near term.”

Nielsen's last two seasons saw Sporting win silverware, after their US Open Cup victory over Seattle – also in a shootout after a 1-1 draw through extra time – in 2012. He was also the Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year last year and earned a MLS Best XI selection, the first Kansas City goalkeeper to do so since Tony Meola in 2000.

“That is legendary status,” Vermes said in introducing Nielsen at Monday night's festivities. “He's the captain of our team. He has been instrumental in helping lead these guys to MLS Cup, and all of us appreciate the genuineness that he's brought to this team, the relationship to the community, and most of all his leadership to this team.”

Nielsen teared up twice on Monday – once on stage and once when talking to reporters – when he talked about his family: his wife, Jannie, who stuck with him through a long gambling addiction that nearly derailed his career, and his two daughters.

“It's not always easy to be married to a soccer player,” he told the crowd. “But everything we've been through together has been unbelievable.”

And while Monday night's decision was bittersweet, Nielsen said, he knew it was time.

“I've always said,” he told reporters, “that it's better to retire one year too early than one year too late.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.