Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen wore a smile on his face as he walked to the side of his net for a sip of water, and rightfully so. His team had just gone ahead by a goal, the home crowd was going crazy, and all seemed right with the world.
But little did he know this sequence of events would not only dwarf Sporting’s 3-1 win over Portland, it would also lead to one of the truly bizarre scenes in Livestrong Sporting Park’s short history, as he was soon struck in the face with the head of an Omar Bravo bobblehead, causing the 34-year old to crumple to the ground in a heap.
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The incident occurred in the 26th minute, just moments after Sporting took a 1-0 lead over Portland on an otherworldly goal by Graham Zusi. But elation quickly turned to worried silence, as the terrified crowd of 15,271 was mostly silent for upwards of four minutes while Nielsen lay there, receiving medical attention.
“I did not see it coming,” Nielsen said. “First I thought I walked into the post, then I realized I was a long way from the post.
“I had a crazy headache,” Nielsen continued. “I was like ‘Oh my god, I need to lay down for a second. Then I saw I was bleeding, and was just waiting for them to come and fix it so I could play again.”
And that’s exactly what he did, as the stillness turned cheers the moment Nielsen rose to his feet and chose to finish in the game. Shortly thereafter, stadium security escorted multiple people out of a section located behind Nielsen’s net.
“Two people from the same group in the third row both allegedly threw parts of the bobbleheads, one of which struck Nielsen,” said Sporting KC vice president of communications Rob Thomson. “Both were apprehended.”
Although the club used its high-resolution security cameras to identify the suspects from the section behind Nielsen’s net, Thomson said it was unclear whether the two fans — who were thought to be Sporting fans and whose identities were not known late Wednesday— threw the items on the field with the intention of hitting Nielsen.
Regardless, the incident marred an otherwise spectacular outing for Sporting, which dominated Portland in pretty much every facet of the game. It outshot the expansion Timbers 13-6 (including 4-2 on goal), and owes much of its success to Zusi, who turns 25 today and celebrated with two goals, the first of which was rather remarkable.
It came in the 25th minute, when Zusi unleashed a right-footed blast from 25 yards out that flew past goalkeeper Troy Perkins and nestled right inside the far left post.
“His first goal was an absolute bomb,” said coach Peter Vermes.
“One of the best strikers of the ball in the game,” said Portland coach John Spencer.
And Sporting quickly built on its first-half lead when Zusi, scored again in the 40th minute, this time on a rebound off a hard shot by forward Teal Bunbury.
From there, Sporting was never in much danger of losing its lead, but it all but iced the game in the 72nd minute when another birthday boy, rookie forward Soony Saad, scored the first goal of his MLS career in his league debut.
Portland, 7-12-5, avoided the shutout when Bright Dike slipped one past Nielsen from just outside the post in the 81st minute. But it never got closer than that, as Sporting improved to 8-7-9 and proved there would be no hangover after a disappointing 3-2 loss to Seattle on Aug. 6 that snapped its 14-game unbeaten streak.
That fact, plus the team’s excellent play, should have been the highlight of an otherwise entertaining game. Unfortunately, Sporting fans in attendance may be more inclined to remember their image of their starting goalkeeper, sprawled out near his net after being struck with a bobblehead, of all things.
The breach is the second high-profile incident to occur at Sporting’s $200 million jewel, which has received non-stop acclaim since it opened. The stadium’s security came under scrutiny in its home opener against Chicago on June 9, when a man dressed as a cow interrupted play by running on the field, unimpeded, for several moments.
But Nielsen, always the tough guy — he continued to play, even after he was spiked in the head later in the game — insisted the bobblehead incident wasn’t that big of a deal, even though the large purple welt under his left eye told a different story.
“No,” Nielsen said when asked whether he still had a headache. “The victory helped.”
SPORTING KANSAS CITY NOTEBOOK
Sporting Kansas City assistant coach John Pascarella served the first of his league-mandated three-game suspension on Wednesday for his behavior toward an official during Sporting's 3-2 loss to Seattle on August 6 at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“I reacted to a situation with the referee in an inappropriate way after the match, and the league has decided I needed to serve a three-match suspension for that,” said Pascarella, who was in attendance Wednesday but was not allowed to be in the locker room or talk to players before or during the game.
The suspension came down because of a verbal altercation Pascarella had with one of the officials after that game. Pascarella said he’s already apologized to the league and the organization, though he hasn’t spoken to the Jair Marrufo, the ref in question.
“I’m sure when I see him again, we will have a very cordial and apologetic discussion,” Pascarella said. “I’m appreciative of the organization for supporting through the process and helping me get through this with the league.”
Sporting forward Soony Saad made the most of his 19th birthday, as he made his first Major League Soccer appearance in the 63rd minute. He came on for Miloš Stojčev, and scored the first goal of his MLS career in the 72nd minute.
“It was in the back of my mind,” Saad said. “This is amazing, getting a goal on my birthday in my debut.”
And Vermes insisted afterward that you should expect a lot more of that from Saad, a guy he often refers to as a “goal scorer.”
“It’s a testament to what you will see in future years with this kid, because he has a goal scoring mentality,” Vermes said.
With designated player Omar Bravo serving a one-game suspension, midfielder Roger Espinoza served as Sporting’s captain on Wednesday. This was Espinoza’s first appearance as Sporting’s captain during his MLS career.
Jéferson, Sporting’s newest designated player, did not dress Wednesday. He was listed as injury on the injury report with a right quad strain.