SAM MELLINGER

Winning goalie Jimmy Nielsen’s MLS Cup runneth over

Updated: 2014-01-29T22:17:22Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

At least the police officer didn’t dump his beer on Jimmy Nielsen. We’re an hour or so into Nielsen’s life as an MLS champion and so far the one constant is that everyone seems to be emptying their beers on his head.

Well, that’s not completely accurate. Some people are emptying their champagne bottles onto Nielsen’s blonde hair. Teammates, coaches, executives. They’re all dumping their drinks on him.

The cop, though, he was different. He smiled at Nielsen, Sporting Kansas City’s star goalkeeper smiled back, and they clinked their beer bottles together and drank. Everybody else is treating Nielsen’s head like a sink and, well, here comes another one. Looks like a rose.

Judging from Nielsen’s reaction, it must feel like an ice bath.

“You know what?” Nielsen says. “The first champagne I had was warm. This here was ice cold. How the hell did they do that? Where did they keep that one?”

Nielsen is smiling as he says this, of course. Heck, at this point, you could club him in the shins and he’d probably laugh. He is the 36-year-old anchor for Sporting, which somehow — some freaking how — has survived 120 minutes of soccer in temperatures in the teens and won the MLS Cup against Real Salt Lake on the 20th penalty kick.

The heating system under the field apparently has the power of a BIC lighter, because Nielsen compared playing goalkeeper on one end to ice skating. Both teams had chances to win. Salt Lake hit the post three times.

No MLS playoff game had ever needed this many penalty kicks, and if Sporting had lost, history would’ve remembered Graham Zusi — one of the best two or three midfielders in the entire league — having a chance to end it but not even putting his kick on goal.

It had to go down like this, didn’t it? Nothing has ever been easy for any sports team in Kansas City, which makes Nielsen a perfect fit.

He came here four years ago for a happy ending to a career that included the high of stardom and the low of a gambling scandal that made national headlines back home in Denmark. Nielsen lost everything he had and then more. He lost so much that he went broke. Heck, he lost so much that the bookie he bet with went broke.

When the scandal went public about a decade ago, Nielsen was banned by the Danish national team, checked into rehab, and began a long journey of recovery that eventually led him to the United States and what was then an afterthought MLS franchise called the Wizards.

Nielsen first heard from technical director Peter Vermes about four years ago. Soccer had enough out of him that he thought he might quit. He didn’t know if he wanted to move to America. He knew nothing about the league, or Kansas City, when he got here four years ago. The Wizards played at CommunityAmerica Ballpark back then, and when Nielsen saw it, he figured it had to be the practice facility.

In the years since, he is 48-25-27 with 35 shutouts. The Wizards have grown into Sporting, into MLS’ greatest success story. Last year, the league named him goalie of the year and he helped Sporting to a second straight Eastern Conference regular-season championship.

He has become, perhaps, the team’s most recognizable player. The White Puma. You can find meaning in little things sometimes. When the last kick by Salt Lake’s Lovel Palmer banged off the crossbar, Nielsen’s teammates rushed to him. When the big, shiny trophy came out, Nielsen was the one they gave it to. And when it came time to paint the wall with the championship — literally spray-paint 2013 on the wall of titles — it was Nielsen doing the painting.

“This trophy here means a lot to me,” he says, before pausing, dropping his head, and closing his eyes.

This is Nielsen’s second conversation with reporters in the locker room. The first time, he said almost exactly these words, and when he got here, the pause lasted about 15 minutes. He needed to collect himself. First, he went behind a plastic covering they put up to protect the lockers from the spraying celebration. Then he disappeared to another room.

When he came back, he was very reflective. He talked about how far the franchise had come, from playing on a minor-league baseball field to a gorgeous soccer-only facility good enough for World Cup qualifiers. He talked about going from playing in front of a few thousand to regular sellout crowds. Cars in his new city have Sporting KC stickers now, and they drive by Sporting KC billboards on the side of the roads.

Nielsen was 21 years old when he won the only other championship of his pro career. He is 36 now, with a family, and perspective. This means more to him than it might to some others. This is how a new country of soccer fans will remember him, especially because this might be his last game.

He won’t say that. He’s dropped hints that this might be it in recent days, but in the celebration, says only “I’m not playing another 10 years.” When asked directly about his plans, he talks about postseason team physicals on Sunday and then a five-day vacation to Denmark to see his family.

After that, he’ll talk about his future.

For now, he’ll enjoy this, every second of it, remembering what it feels like to be a champion again — soaked in champagne and smiles.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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