It's really hard to call someone a legend when they've been with a team just four years and made their name elsewhere.
But Jimmy Nielsen, the Sporting KC goalkeeper and captainwho retired Monday night just 48 hours after winning the MLS Cup
, proves that legends can be built in four years.
Of course, his Kansas City career began under auspicious circumstances. In February 2010, he was brought to the team and replaced Kevin Hartman (who was the league leader in saves) as the starter. Nielsen wasn't sure at the time that it was the right move for him and had to be convinced by Peter Vermes. It also wasn't a very popular decision in Kansas City at the time.
It turned out all right, though.
Nielsen started a club record 128 games in goal for Kansas City in four years. He owns several other franchise goalkeeper records: Minutes played (11,497), wins (57), ties (32), winning percentage (.575) and shutouts (45).**By the way, these are records he owns with a franchise that once employed Tony Meola — a club legend himself who spent six years with KC, but had fewer appearances.
In 2012, Nielsen was the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. He was a two-time MLS All-Star (2010, '12) and a member of the MLS Best XI (2012). Vermes named him the SKC captain before the 2012 season.**The leading contenders, in my opinion, to wear the armband next year would be Matt Besler and, potentially, Paulo Nagamura.
Nielsen retires with a career 0.99 goals-against average, an MLS record for goalkeepers who've played a minimum of 1,000 regular season minutes. (On the road, his career average is 1.03 — also an MLS record for goalkeepers with 1,000 regular-season minutes played.)
But the hole he leaves in net is bigger than just his stats: For the last four years, Kansas City hasn't had to worry about its goalkeeper. Literally. Nielsen has played every minute of the last 100 MLS matches (including playoffs). In that two-year stretch, Kansas City has had the league's best defense both years.
So, legend is probably apt to describe his impact in KC. If hadn't been established before,playing on a frozen field in 20-degree weather with two broken ribs and making two massive saves in a penalty kick shootout to win the MLS Cup
probably did it for sure.
It's going to be hard to replace him. Especially as KC defends its title with the added challenge of CONCACAF Champions League knockout matches on the horizon in March.
Here are a few options Kansas City could consider.
Option 1: Stay the course
Eric Kronberg is the longest tenured member player on the roster, having been here since 2006. However, in those seven years, he's only appeared in five MLS games (four of them starts). The majority of those starts came in 2011.
The limited action he's seen has, mostly, come from U.S. Open fixtures and international friendlies. Though, this year, he started every CONCACAF Champions League match and U.S. Open Cup game for KC — allowing just two goals in six matches.
He's been steady, but not spectacular in those appearances. Which, is not exactly the thing you're looking for when replacing an anchor in net. At 30 years old, he should be entering his goalkeeping prime, but the lack of game experience has kept him from even reaching anything close to that yet.
Behind him is Jon Kempin, 20, the team's first homegrown player. Kempin spent much of 2013 with KC's affiliate Orlando City in the USL-Pro. Though he made nine starts and allowed 10 goals with Orlando City, Kempin still needs more experience before he's handed the keys to an MLS club.
It's not the sexiest option, but Kronberg has been around long enough to at least earn a shot at the No. 1 job. Kempin's time is likely a few years away. (Though, the salary cap exemption Kempin offers being on a homegrown contract could be enticing as KC tries to add more pieces for a congested 2014 campaign.)
Option 2: Bring in a veteran to compete with Kronberg
There were two notable goalkeepers waived this week in MLS: Seattle's Michael Gspurning and Vancouver's Brad Knighton.
Gspurning is the better of the two and is currently a free agent, as he does not meet the criteria for the MLS Re-Entry Draft on Thursday. Knighton, a decent but not spectacular prospect, is one of 68 players available through the re-entry drafts. (He's probably the best option of the handful of goalkeepers available via that process: Colorado's Steward Ceus, Salt Lake's Josh Saunders, Seattle's Josh Ford, San Jose's Evean Newtown and Vancouver's Joe Cannon.)
Another option would be Columbus' Andy Gruenebaum, an Overland Park native who is currently out of contract. He made 21 appearances for the Crew in a year cut short by injuries. In 2012, he was one of the league's most surprising goalkeepers, posting 13 wins, 124 saves and 8 shutouts.
Word is that Columbus wants to bring back Gruenebaum. (Update: Because he doesn't appear on the re-entry list and he's 30 years old, Columbus likely made him a qualifying offer of 105% of his 2013 salary. Which means, if KC wants him, it would need to pull off a trade for him.)
This is a very likely route for KC, as competition is never a bad thing. Gspurning is the only guy that would be comparable to Nielsen on the field. (The two also made comparable base salaries in 2013 — Nielsen: $200,000, Gspurning: $210,000).
Gruenebaum ($92,220) and Knighton ($66,000) would be less expensive alternatives. Also, likely a step down in quality.
Option 3: Look overseas
Sporting KC has a fairly comprehensive scouting network (which netted them Nielsen back in 2010) and Vermes could once again dip into the vast European pool to find a new starter.
Chances are very high that Kansas City knew Nielsen was nearing the end of his career and had probably started looking as a back-up plan at some point over the last two years.
This is a likely option, especially if the team feels Kronberg isn't No. 1 material.
Option 4: Trade for a starter
Taking a guess at this option is essentially a crapshoot. There are (potentially) a few goalkeepers out there in bad situations (maybe Colorado's Matt Pickens coming back from an injury with Clint Irwin entrenched as a starter?), but most goalkeepers at Nielsen's level would be expensive to procure. This would include guys like Dan Kennedy (Chivas) and Tally Hall (Houston).
Would Kansas City give up draft picks to find an MLS-level starter? A player exchange? Some allocation money?
We have seen Vermes wheel-and-deal in the past (remember Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012?), moving players and picks around to reshuffle the deck.
I'd guess this route is unlikely, but it's hard to say for certain until we get into the transfer window.
No matter what option Vermes takes, it's going to take some time to get used to seeing Kansas City's goal without The White Puma standing guard in front of it.