"Palmer, right-footed. HE HITS THE CROSSBAR!"
The stadium erupts, the bar still shaking from the ball being struck across it. Jimmy Nielsen recovers from his dive to his left and stands up, arms raised. The team rushes from the bench and from the midfield line to embrace Nielsen and create a celebratory mob as MLS Cup Champions.
Perhaps the team knew, perhaps they didn't. Nobody outside of that inner circle knew that the missed penalty kick that gave Sporting Kansas City the MLS Cup would be Jimmy Nielsen's last moment as a professional soccer player. It was the perfect way to go out for the White Puma as he did what he always did: Coming up big in big moments.
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We all know the story of how Jimmy Nielsen wound up at Kansas City. He was considering retirement at the age of 32 but he received a call from Peter Vermes and wound up with a contract to play keeper for the Kansas City Wizards. The white-haired Dane manned the post for the Wizards as they started off hot, allowing only one goal in four games. They were playoff contenders the entire year but failed to make it at the end. That debut season for Nielsen, however, established him as one of the better keepers in the MLS. He allowed an average of 1.17 goals a game, a relatively low stat, and was an inactive member of the All-Star team.
That season earned him another one year contract, this time through 2011. Over that time the club completely transformed and the culture of the city transformed with it. Nielsen, along with Kei Kamara and Graham Zusi, were the most recognizable players on that squad, however Nielsen emerged as a leader amongst the group. The team looked to his expertise and followed his wisdom. When Davy Aurnaud was traded to the Montreal Impact for Seth Sinovic after the 2011 season, there was no question who would take over the captain's armband.
In 2012 and 2013 Nielsen helped Sporting Kansas City run the league's best defense, holding a remarkable 0.79 goals against average rate in 2012 that lead to him being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and the starter for the MLS All-Stars. In 2013 his average climbed a bit to 0.88, still an extremely good record.
The pink kit became his trademark, wearing it the majority of the 2012 and 2013 season's. He was always one of the most recognizable players on the field with his kit and brilliant white hair. In those seasons the captain helped lead Sporting Kansas City to the US Open Cup and the MLS Cup, finishing both with big saves in penalty kick shootouts. The shot was the same in both scenarios: the kick going too high, Nielsen jumping up from his dive and celebrating with his team. Those two wins will be looked on in the future as the culmination for the turnaround for Sporting Kansas City and Jimmy Nielsen will be at the center of both of them.
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Jimmy Nielsen was more than just a great goalkeeper, he is also a good person. Stories of Nielsen's passion for the game off the field have been circling around since he got to Kansas City. He's also been genuinely happy to meet his fans and say hello to them. A personal account of mine is when I was at a Chiefs game, walking up to the turnstile with my friend and Nielsen was walking down the other side. Being younger and more starstruck I yelled out "Jimmy Nielsen!" He turned, smiled a big smile and waved before walking down the ramp. As someone who hadn't met many professional players at that point, it was a big deal to me. He's always been a friendly person ever since he came to Kansas City and has showed it everywhere he went.
On the field there will always be memorable moments with him. Some were good, some were bad and some were downright scary. There was the time when all of our hearts stopped as Nielsen went down after being hit with a bobblehead thrown from the stands. Like the tough player he is though, he got up and played the rest of the game. The red card he earned in the Sporting Park opener surely saved a goal but it took him out of the game and suspended him for the next one. He made mistakes like every keeper but he more than made up for it with all of the good that he did.
There was save after save after save that sent the fans erupting in noise every single time. A particular favorite of mine happened in the video below, showing just how quick Nielsen was and how good his reflexes were. (Skip to the 0:57 mark.)
There were moments when Nielsen saved the game and games where he didn't even need to make a save thanks to his stellar back line. However, after every game he would go over to the Cauldron and applaud the fans. They would cheer and praise their captain and he would cheer and praise them right back. Nielsen loved the Sporting KC fans and showed it every game.
Like he said in his retirement speech, all good things must come to an end. Nielsen choose to go out as a champion and I'm sure that Sporting Kansas City fans wouldn't have it any other way. It's sad to think that next year the goalposts will be manned by someone else, but we'll get used to it. We, however, will never forget Jimmy Nielsen.
We will never forget the saves, the smiles and the celebrations. We will never forget the moments such as wearing his pants backwards accidentally or squirting a water bottle at Aurelien Collin in frustration. We will never forget the pure joy as he ran to greet the team after the US Open Cup win, or the pure joy as the team came to greet him at the conclusion of the 2013 MLS Cup. There will be other goalkeepers as the years go by, but there is only one Jimmy Nielsen.
There will come a day when his name is inscribed on the wall of fame next to Preki and Tony Meola. He will go down in Sporting Kansas City history as one of the best keepers in its history and one of the best in MLS history. He is a Sporting Kansas City legend, no doubt about it.
So, thank you Jimmy Nielsen. Thank you for the saves, for the smiles, the cheers, the moments, the memories, the wins, the celebrations and everything that you did in your four years with Kansas City. Thank you for being the leader that you are, helping transform Kansas City into a soccer city.
Thank you Jimmy Nielsen. Have a great retirement. You've earned it.