JImmy Nielsen played -- and won -- the game for Sporting Kansas City with broken ribs in his right side. (Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI)
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- In the 118th minute of Sporting Kansas City's epic triumph in the 2013 MLS Cup, a roar began to emanate from the Sporting supporters. Was it something wacky on the video board? No -- it was focused on the field. Had a goal been scored? No -- play was stalled at the other end.
So why, then, for the sudden commotion, audible above all the cacophonous din of a standing-room only crowd?
Because Jimmy Nielsen was doing push-ups. To stay warm. This, despite broken ribs in his right side -- an injury not revealed to anyone until after the match. It was just that frigid.
"I think it's fair to say it's ridiculous cold," Nielsen told reporters earlier in the week, reflecting on his team's win against Houston in the semi-final -- a game that was actually warmer at kickoff (22 degrees) than the final played on Saturday (20 degrees). Both set records for coldest match in MLS' 18-year history. "I'm a goalkeeper, I'm just standing there, my gloves have to be wet so I can catch the ball…I got some Scandinavian blood in me, but it was still very, very cold."
So perhaps a search for warmth was why, when the end of extra time was signaled and the teams huddled together and began preparing for penalty kicks, Nielsen ran past his teammates, past the shimmering trophy he would later hoist, and down the tunnel into the Sporting locker room.
He may also have been changing studs, since the penalties were set to take place on the side of the field that wasn't frozen -- the same side where Sporting captured the U.S. Open Cup on PKs against the Seattle Sounders over a year ago.
Or maybe the reason was medical. Nielsen's rib injury occurred in Sporting's Eastern Conference final first leg match against the Houston Dynamo, meaning this was the second consecutive cold-weather match he was playing with the problem.
Whatever the real reason was (Update: it turned out to be far less glamorous than all that), Nielsen emerged from the tunnel a different goalkeeper than the one who played the previous 120 minutes.
"We were standing in the huddle before the PKs, and I told them no matter what the result is going end up, I’m very, very proud of you,” Nielsen said after the game. "I came here four years ago with the goal of being a champion. Now I’m standing with this, it’s a very proud moment."
History will remember Nielsen's performance as heroic, and that would be accurate (especially given his injury). But let the record show that in this game he was guilty of awkward footing, clumsy positioning, and other errors that could easily have led to RSL goals. Perhaps no one play summed it up more than an extraordinary sequence in the 73rd minute when Nielsen, caught off his line, could only stand and watch helplessly as Javier Morales attempted an audacious chip from the corner of the box.
From his body language, Nielsen seemed like he thought it was going well wide. Instead, it pinged off the post, and with no RSL player following the shot, Nielsen scurried to shepherd the ball out of bounds.
Then he slipped on the ice and fell on his face.
So this was the man that, over the course of 20 excruciating kicks of a round ball on the cold ground, would write himself into MLS lore.
“I probably could understand the people on our side of the field and how nervous they would get. Because when I was not a part of it, I was pretty nervous when we had to shoot." Nielsen said of the fans behind the goal where the kicks were taken. "But when I was in the goal, I didn’t feel nervous at all."
Perhaps it was because he had done it before. Just like in the 2012 Open Cup final, Nielsen stopped a penalty in the first five kicks (in this case, denying Ned Grabavoy with a nice diving stop), giving Sporting an immediate advantage.
The Dane followed that up with his shining moment in the match. With Sporting substitute Lawrence Olum missing badly on his PK attempt in sudden death, Salt Lake's Sebastian Velasquez had the Claret and Cobalt's second MLS Cup championship at his feet. Problem was, he fired it into the arms of Nielsen, who made an outstanding diving stop to manufacture hope from hopelessness.
That's when 2012 repeated itself again. Just as it was then, Nielsen watched as the opposition's No. 7 (2012: Eddie Johnson. 2013: Lovel Palmer) stepped up to take the decisive kick. He watched as the attempt missed the intended target, with Palmer's effort smacking the crossbar and going out. And just like that night over a year ago when he lifted his first piece of hardware with Kansas City, Nielsen hopped aboard a silver platform, raised himself to the upper part of a wall adjacent to the team's supporters, and painted the year in which this trophy was won.
But in this, there was a difference. In 2012, Nielsen pasted rigid, precisely-cut numbers in official font on the concrete brick. That wouldn't do this time. At MLS Cup, Nielsen scrawled the best "2013" his wet, frozen hands would allow in silver spray paint, which dripped ever so slightly as defender Aurélien Collin followed up with his own artistic license.
Given his performance, it was a fittingly sloppy way to end an incredible triumph. Yet at the conclusion of a season that is speculated to be his last (retirement rumors swirled in the leadup to the match), Nielsen deferred credit for what could be a final act unheard of in the league thus far.
"When I first came here to Kansas City, they showed me the stadium, I thought that was our practice facility. And now today, four years later, we are in this environment here," Nielsen said of the fans who chanted "paint the wall" as he made his mark. "It’s those people that deserve this trophy today.”
But it was the Danish keeper -- frozen, broken, and possibly finished -- who lifted it.