Uncontrollably, as if it’s a genetically programmed reflex, Jimmy Nielsen’s tongue pops out of his mouth and waggles side to side when he’s intensely focused.
It’s a quirk of concentration he’s always exhibited, but one that’s impossible to ignore when Nielsen, who is the captain and starting goalkeeper for Sporting Kansas City, is sprawled on the ground after collecting a shot from an opponent.
Inevitably, the camera zooms in tight on Nielsen, ball clutched to his chest and tongue wagging as if he’s channeling Michael Jordan.
“When I’m focused, I’m doing that,” Nielsen said. “Two years ago, I was back in Denmark. I went home to see my mom and she pulled out a lot of pictures of me when I was a kid to show my kids. I was probably in first or second grade, sitting and drawing with my tongue out. It’s not something new.”
Whatever works, and this season everything seems to be working for Nielsen and the Sporting KC defense, which has been the best in MLS statistically.
“His ability to block shots is fantastic, and he’s always in the right spots,” center back Matt Besler said. “Our defense is a group effort, so everyone on the team deserves some credit. But obviously Jimmy plays a big part. He organizes us and makes really big saves at critical times. He may not make 10 saves a game, but the two or three saves are usually huge.”
Selected as the starting goalkeeper for the MLS All-Star Game, Nielsen has allowed only 25 goals, including three on penalty kicks, and his 0.83 goals-against average leads the MLS this season.
That mark would be good for the fourth-best goals-against average in a season for any goalkeeper in MLS history.
Nielsen, who has won the league’s save-of-the-week honor four times and owns a league-best 414-minute shutout streak this season, also is tied for the MLS lead in wins by a goalkeeper (16), which already broke the franchise record for most wins in regulation in a single season, and owns the most shutouts in MLS (13).
In other words, he is closing in on the goalkeeping triple crown, a rare feat only three times in MLS history — Los Angeles’ Kevin Hartman (1999), Chicago’s Zach Thornton (2001) and San Jose’s Pat Onstad (2005).
His sterling season also has moved Nielsen into first place all-time in MLS history in goals-against average for goalkeepers who’ve played a minimum of 4,000 minutes.
Nielsen, whose 1.05 career mark is marginally better than Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller’s 1.06, also boasts the best road goals-against average in league history at 1.11, and his 30 shutouts since 2010 are second-most in the MLS behind only Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando.
“In my opinion, he is easily the best goalkeeper in the league,” Sporting KC goalkeepers coach John Pascarella said. “He’s settled and fits our style of play very well. We’re a team that plays high up the pitch. Fortunately, one of Jimmy’s best assets is playing one-v-one, which is going to happen to us because of the way we play and how aggressive we are going forward. There are going to be times people get in behind us, but he is unbelievable when he comes off his line in those situations against an attacker.”
The vision of a 6-foot-3, 200-pound Danish man with platinum hair — tongue wagging side to side, of course — rapidly closing down the space certainly must unnerve many opposing attackers.
“For sure, he’s intimidating with his size and the speed with which he comes out,” Pascarella said. “But he reads those situations very well. He gives you something and then takes it away. You thought you had and the next thing you know, the ball’s in his arms or off his legs. He’s brilliant for us in that way.”
Still, Nielsen’s wagging tongue isn’t something Sporting KC likes to see either, but that has nothing for his propensity for occasionally chomping his tongue.
“I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen him grimace on the side and you realize, he’s done it again,” Pascarella joked. “He’s bites his tongue probably quite a few times each week.”
Still, during games, the tongue wagging is at its worst when Sporting KC’s goal is threatened, which is why it’s an unwelcome site.
“His mannerisms — that’s just Jimmy Nielsen and that’s why we love him,” center back Matt Besler said. “But the less he does it in a game, the better for us. He tends to do it when he’s about to face a shot or something, so if he’s not doing it a lot in a game then he’s probably not getting a lot of action. That’s good for us.”