A penalty kick smacked off the crossbar, and Jimmy Nielsen raised both arms in the air. He turned toward his bench, then fell back into the goal as his Sporting Kansas City teammates mobbed him.
By SAM McDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
After a 15-year wait, this was how he celebrated the second championship of his career.
It’s also his final image as a professional soccer player.
Nielsen, 36, announced his retirement from soccer during Monday evening’s MLS Cup celebration at Union Station, opting to go out on top after a 19-year career.
“All good things come to an end,” Nielsen told the crowd. “And so does my career.”
With fans chanting “One more year,” Nielsen fought back tears as he thanked his family, his teammates and his fans. The latter responded with a “Thank you, Jimmy” chant.
Sporting KC defeated Real Salt Lake 7-6 in penalty kicks Saturday after the two teams played to a 1-1 draw in regulation and overtime. Nielsen kept his team alive in the shootout when he stoned Real Salt Lake’s Sebastian Velasquez, who shot for the win in the eighth round of a league-record 10 rounds of kicks.
Two rounds later, Real Salt Lake defender Lovel Palmer struck the crossbar with his attempt, clinching Nielsen his first championship since he hoisted the Danish Superliga trophy as a member of AaB Fodbold. He was 21.
“That’s legendary status leaving the way he did,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “... I think it’s a great decision. He goes out on top. He’ll be sorely missed by us but absolutely never forgotten.”
Nielsen reluctantly signed with the Kansas City Wizards prior to the 2010 season after receiving an unexpected phone call from Peter Vermes. The risk paid off for both sides.
In four seasons with Sporting KC, Nielsen, 36, was 57-38-33 with 45 shutouts. He was named the MLS goalie of the year in 2012 after matching a league record with 18 wins in a season.
“I don’t think anyone thought it would be the best four years of my life on and off the field, (but) it’s just been amazing,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen said he has been contemplating retirement throughout the postseason, though he didn’t completely make up his mind until Monday morning.
“It’s better to retire one year too early than one year too late,” he said. “That was the feeling I left with today.”
Nielsen kept his announcement private — even from his teammates, who hugged him as he dropped the microphone to the stage floor.
“I was surprised and stunned a little bit,” defender Matt Besler said. “I’m very, very happy for Jimmy. I congratulate him on his career. He’ll go down as a legend. He’ll always have place on this team and in this city.”
And he may not be leaving so soon.
The next chapter, Nielsen says, will include a spot in the sideline. He plans to pursue a coaching career, and Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman says that possibility could exist in Kansas City.
“I think there’s a very good chance you’re going to see Jimmy Nielsen doing something in the Sporting organization in the very near term,” Heineman said.
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