KANSAS CITY, Kansas -- With each interview he conducted, Jimmy Nielsen battled emotions and champagne and beer showers from teammates. He did his best to stay composed and explain why Saturday’s MLS Cup title triumph meant so much to him, but his first few interviews ended with him fighting back tears, taking a deep breath and looking around the Sporting Kansas City locker room as he soaked in the reality that he had just won his first professional title in 16 years.
“Right now it’s a weird feeling,” Nielsen said after the match. “I don’t feel like a champion yet. It’s got to get through your head, but there’s no doubt it’s a proud moment right now. This is what I’ve been dreaming about since we came to Kansas City four years ago and it’s pretty awesome.”
Nielsen did his part on Saturday to make his own dream come true, making a pair of saves in the penalty shootout, including a vital stop on Sebastian Velasquez that kept Sporting KC alive.
When asked about that decisive intervention, which helped wrest the momentum away from RSL and give Sporting KC control it wouldn’t relinquish, Neilsen said he didn’t give that final save that much thought before he made it.
“This moment, you don’t think like that. That you’re out of the game if he makes it,” Nielsen. “You only think that you have to save it. You have to stop the ball, and that’s the only thing in your head at the moment.”
Nielsen’s two penalty saves in the shootout helped offset failed attempts by Sporting KC stars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, and set up Chance Myers and Aurelien Collin to convert the decisive final kicks, securing the team’s first championship since 2000 and Nielsen’s first championship since 1999, when he was just 21.
Nielsen’s contribution to Sporting KC’s run to a championship went well beyond two big penalty saves, or even his four seasons of excellence in net, which included winning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2012. As the team’s captain and most experienced player, Nielsen has provided a vital veteran presence to a team that has come of age over three seasons which have seen the team endure previous playoff disappointments.
“It’s one thing to have someone that’s good at what they do, but his leadership in the locker room, on the training pitch, on the road, it’s the intangibles that make a champion,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes told Goal USA. “You can’t teach that to someone, and it’s one of the biggest reasons we’ve had success.
“He’s a selfless guy, a team guy.”
Nielsen’s 15-year wait for a title made the lead up to Saturday’s final important to him, and he made sure to let his teammates know what a special opportunity they had.
“As I told my teammates before the game, after a big final like this you want to give everything you have so that no matter what the result is you can look yourself in the mirror after the game and say, ‘alright I gave everything I have’,” Nielsen said. “That’s exactly what my teammates did today.”
As soon as he finished that statement, Nielsen halted the interview and fought back emotions that seemed to overwhelm him. Not only because of the long wait to win another title, but perhaps also because he knows that Saturday could signal the end of his career should he choose to retire.
“I wanted to be a champion again, and of course I know I’m not playing another 10 years so this year it’s a big moment. It’s a proud moment.”
Nielsen stopped short of saying he was ready to retire though.
“Tomorrow we are doing our physicals and on Monday I’m going on a vacation, and then I’ll figure that out with Mr. Vermes,” Nielsen said.
You couldn’t really blame Nielsen if retirement was the furthest thing on his mind on Saturday. As his younger teammates celebrated in boisterous fashion around, Nielsen’s post-game demeanor was more one of reflection as he soaked in the moment he had waited so many years to experience again. You could tell he wasn’t just happy about winning a title. He had the look of a man who was fulfilled and at peace.
“This trophy here means a lot to me,” Nielsen said. “You know I came here four years ago with the goal of being a champion. Now we’re standing with this (trophy). It’s a very proud moment.”