Days before the most consequential match of his Major League Soccer career, Jimmy Nielsen remained unsure he would play. Unsure he could play.
With the 2013 MLS Cup looming, the sting of two broken ribs had grown worse for Sporting Kansas City’s captain. Nielsen received a painkilling shot and supplemental medicine. A doctor advised him against playing through the injury.
He considered that.
“I tried a lot of different (solutions), but that’s some of the most pain I’ve ever been through,” he said.
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The rest of the story is well-publicized. Sporting KC defeated Real Salt Lake in a record-setting 10 rounds of penalty kicks. Nielsen stopped two of them, including a potential game-winner in the eighth round.
He retired two days later during the club’s championship celebration at Union Station.
In a recent interview with The Star, Nielsen looked back on the championship match he says solidified his career with Sporting KC. What if he had sat out with the injury? What if Sporting KC had been unable to prevail in the shootout?
“I would’ve probably tried to squeeze another year out of my body,” he said.
The reality, however, is Nielsen didn’t move well in the MLS Cup, though at least part of that can be attributed to the frozen grass covering the south penalty box.
Real Salt Lake grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 52nd minute, a play that Nielsen now says could’ve forced an early exit from the match. He dived to his left, landing on the sheet of ice.
“The worst,” he said. “That was right down on my ribs.”
Nielsen, 38, dealt with a variety of injuries over the course of his final two seasons in Kansas City, even twice battling meningitis. Although he says a loss in the MLS Cup final might have prompted a desire to return, he walked onto the field that fateful December afternoon having known for weeks that his body was no longer handling the rigors of the game.
“When I retired, I knew I was done,” Nielsen said. “My body was damaged — my back, my neck, my hips, my knees, my constant struggle with migraines. It was the right time for me to stop.”
To stop a playing career.
To start a coaching career.
Nielsen took over the expansion-club OKC Energy only a few weeks later, a team he will bring to Kansas City on Saturday. The Energy, a USL club, will play the Swope Park Rangers, Sporting KC’s affiliate, at 7:30 p.m. at Swope Park.
OKC reached the conference finals in 2015, and the club is 4-2-4 this season.
Nielsen’s former coach remains unsurprised.
“Jimmy’s a leader (and) incredible competitor,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said, adding, “I can tell when I talk to him that he’s definitely into it.”
And has been for quite some time. Nielsen actually the began the process of securing his coaching license while living and playing in his home Denmark.
He long considered it while playing with Sporting KC, too.
“I had to try myself as a coach,” he said. “I didn’t know it would come that fast after I retired, but, you know, here I am — 40 pounds heavier and standing and screaming on the sideline.”