Sporting Kansas City goalie Jimmy Nielsen described the first soccer championship of his career with a certain flavor of sentiment and passion. And perhaps some regret, too.
He was only 21 when he hoisted the Danish Superliga trophy as a member of AaB Fodbold. He didn’t think much of it, he explained, shaking his head in disappointment as his spoke. He desperately wants another chance.
This is a monologue Nielsen has presented several times over the past month, though it seemed more convincing Thursday as he spoke with teammate Graham Zusi and coach Peter Vermes sitting alongside him.
It also begged the obvious question: If Sporting Kansas City prevails in the MLS Cup at 3 p.m. Saturday against Real Salt Lake, might it provide Nielsen’s swan song?
“No way,” Zusi offered before Nielsen could respond.
That answer prompted a laugh from Nielsen, who followed with a far less emphatic response.
“All the focus is on the big final on Saturday,” he said. “And we’ll talk (about my) future after the game.”
That isn’t exactly a reassuring response, but it is certainly a genuine one.
A victory Saturday would give Nielsen the perfect cap to his career. And it would offer him a chance to win another championship, which he didn’t appreciate as a young, know-it-all goalkeeper in Denmark.
“I got my first championship when I was 21 years old, and I thought it would just be one out of many,” said Nielsen, 36. “I thought we were probably going to win it next year and the next year and the next year.
“And here 15 years later, I’m still standing with one championship.”
It’s been an unusual journey in the meantime for Nielsen, who contemplated quitting soccer in early 2010 before receiving an unexpected phone call from Vermes.
That call was enough to convince Vermes to offer a contract, even though he wasn’t able to scout Nielsen in person because it conflicted with Sporting KC’s preseason schedule.
“When we got Jimmy four years ago, it was a risky move,” Vermes said. “Normally, when I look at a foreign player, I go and watch him live. We were in the preseason, so I had to go with my gut feeling.”
His gut told him Sporting KC could make use of a veteran who offered to supply leadership and drive a young team with a first-year coach.
Four years later, Nielsen remains the team captain — the best captain Vermes says he’s ever coached or played with.
“The guys respect him. They listen to what he has to say,” Vermes said. “And he’s not afraid to say sometimes what isn’t the most kosher thing. Good leaders have to be able to say the things that aren’t the most popular things, but at the same time, you have to have the guys respect what you’re saying. I think he commands that within the group.”
His play on the field does, too.
Over the last three seasons, Nielsen is 47-25-27 with 35 shutouts. He was named the MLS goalie of the year in 2012 after matching a league-record 18 wins in a season. He helped Sporting KC to its second straight Eastern Conference regular season title the same year.
It hasn’t, however, led to a coveted postseason championship.
“It’s not just me, but I think the whole team and the fans and the owners really deserve a championship,” Nielsen said.
He’s confident he would find a better way to celebrate than he did in 1999. Nielsen said he battled the flu in the finals match, limiting his participation in post-match celebrations.
Well, not completely.
“I had two beers,” Nielsen said. “And I felt extremely drunk.”
A potential second championship Saturday, as he feels the window closing on opportunities, would elicit a different reaction.
“When you reach my age, it’s close to last call,” he responded. “No matter what, I’ll still believe we had an awesome season. But I would be very, very proud and very, very happy to win that championship. I will know I have to truly appreciate it.”