Sporting KC MVP: Adversity Reveals Nielsen’s Character

Soccer goalkeepers are usually shown in highlight reels making incredible game saving stops. Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has made his share of these, but it was one shot that got past him which solidified my admiration of the man nicknamed “White Puma”.

The setting was Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City vs. New England, on a 100 degree evening in July. Sporting was leading in the second half and 20 year old Daniel Cyrus, making his first MLS appearance, was defending for KC.

Cyrus, looking a little tentative, misplayed a backpass that the opposition quickly turned into a goal against Jimmy Nielsen. I was not pleased, nor was the home crowd who was comparing Cyrus to the stellar defense of fan favorite Aurelien Colin, the man Cyrus replaced as an injury substitute just minutes earlier.

Cyrus looked absolutely crushed by his error. What happened next placed Nielsen amongst my favorite keepers in KC history – up there near the legendary Tony Meola.

Everyone reacts differently in the heat of competition. Back in 2000 I watched Tony Meola have the best campaign to date of any Kansas City goalie. If a teammate was ever out of position or the opposition ever got a shot off due to a defensive miscue, Tony would immediately let his defenders verbally have it. He was so loud I could hear him from my seat at Arrowhead Stadium.

And if the opposing team actually scored on Tony off a defensive error – well, that was unthinkable. Avoiding the loud consequences of such a mishap surely motivated the defense during Meola’s MLS record 681 minute shutout streak that year.

Fast forward to Jimmy Nielsen and the 2011 KC team, who are just as spirited as the team of 2000. Fans at the game saw what wasn’t shown on TV or replays. After Cyrus’ unfortunate error, Jimmy ran right up to his defender and got his attention. They locked eyes and I expected a well deserved verbal chew out of Meola magnitude to get the player’s head back in the game.

Instead Jimmy said a few words, smiled, and then held his hand out face high, palm facing the side – inviting his teammate to “give him five”. Cyrus reciprocated, and with Jimmy’s powerful side slap against the defender’s palm, a strong bond of support was conveyed to both the player and the 16,000+ in attendance. I couldn’t hear the words from the front row, but the message was clear to all who saw it:

Don’t worry about it, I got your back. Get the next one. We need you at your best.

It was the perfect response for that moment. In one action, Jimmy Nielsen superbly handled his teammates’ mental outlook both for the match, and for his MLS future – while also showing me, the fans and players the true meaning of unshakeable support.

The young defender’s spirit immediately skyrocketed, inspired by Nielsen’s leadership. I watched Cyrus finish with visible determination, making several great defenses late in the eventual win, and even earning a start against Sporting KC’s next opponent.

A goalkeeper is a physical wall preventing a soccer ball from getting in. That night Jimmy Nielsen was an emotional wall keeping doubt and fear from creeping in.

The best players elevate the play of their teammates and rally the fans behind them. Jimmy Nielsen is a true MVP.

Mark Chan is a Sporting Kansas City supporter and 15 year season ticket holder. He has attended over 90% of the franchise’s home games since the inaugural season in 1996.

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