Sometime in early February 2010, Jimmy Nielsen’s phone rang back in his native Denmark.
Nielsen, who is Sporting Kansas City’s goalkeeper and captain, was miserable playing for Vejle Boldklub, which had been relegated from the Danish Superliga a few months earlier.
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With four years remaining on his contract and unwilling to play for the club anymore, Nielsen thought his professional soccer career was finished.
“I’d had enough with that club,” Nielsen said. “If I didn’t find anything else, I had two coaching offers — full-time — so I probably would have taken one of those.”
Mind you, Nielsen, who started the MLS All-Star Game last season and went on to be selected as the league’s goalkeeper of the year, wasn’t ready to retire. He wanted to keep playing and knew he had more good seasons in him.
Nonetheless, Nielsen thought he’d come to the end of the road.
“I was not ready to quit,” Nielsen said. “I wanted more, but the situation left me without many options. My club had all the power and control.”
Then came that fateful phone call.
As a rule, Sporting KC coach/technical director Peter Vermes prefers to scout players in person.
He made an exception for Nielsen.
“Normally, we try to go see a player live, but we didn’t have that opportunity with Jimmy,” Vermes said.
Vermes had caught wind that Nielsen wasn’t happy in Vejle. He’d seen “The White Puma” on film and was intrigued, but it was that phone call that cemented the deal.
“It was extremely motivating to talk to him on the phone,” Nielsen said. “I had to put him on speaker, so my wife, (Jannie), could hear him, too. He basically told me about his plan for the team, a little bit about the city and organization and he got me — easily.”
Vermes felt a similar instant connection.
“I had a very good feel on the phone as soon as I was done talking to him,” Vermes said. “I could tell right away that he had a great attitude and he was a team-oriented guy. It was strange. I could just sense it right away. I knew after talking to him that we’d get a deal done, and it was amazing. We got a deal in like 12 hours.”
Usually, contracts in professional sports simply don’t happen easily or quickly.
“It did in this case, because when we spoke, I trusted him 100 percent,” Nielsen said. “He sent me an offer, and I accepted right away. It was pretty simple.”
Only one thing stood in the way, Nielsen’s contract with Vejle. That’s when the gambler in him came out.
Back in 1999, Nielsen was playing for the Denmark under-21 national team when he and a couple of teammates sneaked away one night to gamble at a casino — interestingly enough — in Vejle.
Once word of the escapade went public, Nielsen was banned from training with the national team and dubbed “Casino Jimmy,” a moniker that has followed him throughout his career.
Nielsen doesn’t gamble these days — Jannie barred him from Kansas City casinos — but he rolled the dice for a shot at playing with Sporting KC.
He and Vermes had negotiated the framework of a one-year deal with an option for a second season, but Nielsen still had to persuade Vejle to let him go.
That’s when Nielsen bet big that he could rejuvenate his career in middle America.
“They wanted money from me, so I had to pay them some money myself to get out of the contract, and Kansas City paid a little bit, too,” Nielsen said. “I’m just glad we figured out a deal.”
It seems strange now, but Nielsen considered returning to Denmark after that first season in Kansas City.
“I spoke to a team back in Denmark and had it in my head for a few days,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen went 10-13-6 with 10 shutouts in 29 appearances for the then-Wizards, who were playing at CommunityAmerica Ballpark.
“I wanted to talk to Peter about it, but before that I talked to my wife. She said, ‘Fine, you can go back to Denmark, but I guarantee you one thing, me and the kids are staying here.’ That made that decision very easy and, of course, it was the right decision.”
Nielsen posted seven shutouts and went 12-8-11 in 31 appearances in 2011, helping Sporting KC rally to win the Eastern Conference regular-season title.
Last season, he played every minute — an MLS record-tying 3,060 — as Sporting KC repeated as Eastern Conference regular-season champions.
Nielsen went 18-7-9, matching the MLS record for wins in the non-shootout era and finishing with 15 shutouts, one shy of the league record.
“My plan was to come here for one year and get the motivation back and enjoy soccer a little bit, but now I enjoy life more than I ever have before,” said Nielsen, 35. “It’s a great organization. We have a great team here with a great future, so I easily see myself here for another three or four years.”