Jimmy Nielsen knew retirement was close. It wasn't the first time the 36-year old goalkeeper for Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer thought about hanging up his boots.
But what turned out be his final match provided the best opportunity to go out on top: Win the MLS Cup, call it a career.
On Dec. 7, Sporting KC defeated Real Salt Lake for the championship. After playing 120 minutes to a 1-1 tie, the game went to a shootout. Even the shootout needed extra rounds before Sporting KC won 7-6 in the 10th round.
The victory made Nielsen's choice to retire easy.
“I've been chasing this guy (the MLS Cup) for a long time,” he said.
Born and raised in Denmark, soccer was always in the cards for Nielsen. His parents were called to the school when he was a kid because his lofty goals of playing professional soccer for a living didn't seem realistic to his teacher.
"When I was a little kid, the teacher asked me to come up and write on the board what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was writing, play professional soccer, play professional soccer, play professional soccer,” he said. “But after I played my first professional soccer game, my teacher wrote me a letter (to apologize). It was just a case of her overreacting.”
Nielsen said he played seven days a week since he was 4 years old. And when he was 12, a club in England began to show interest.
"They wanted to meet me and recruit me," Nielsen said.
Every weekend for three years, the young Nielsen flew from his home in Denmark to England to practice and work out with the team. When he turned 15, the legal age to sign a professional contract, he hoped it was the right time.
“That was one of the biggest arguments my parents ever had,” he said. “My dad wanted me to go, my mom didn't."
It wasn't until he was 17 that Nielsen finally got the chance to play for Millwall FC.
Although he never appeared for the club, he did play 398 games for AaB in Denmark, including a 1998-99 Danish Superliga championship. But Nielsen was ready for a change.
"I played for the same team for so many years. I needed something new,” he said. “I paid myself out of my contract to get here. That was the best decision I've made."
Nielsen landed in MLS. Soccer is growing in North America, and players are deciding to play here rather than take the traditional route of going to Europe. That says a lot about the competition in MLS.
“It's really cool to see the way things have changed here in North America. The level of soccer has grown,” Nielsen said.
But though Nielsen has retired as a player, he isn't done with soccer. Coaching became the next step in a lifelong marriage to the sport.
Enter Oklahoma City Energy FC. New on the soccer scene with only a team name, the USL PRO club reached out to Nielsen about becoming the first coach in franchise history.
“If I had known an opportunity like this was out there, I would have been looking for it,” he said.
Call it love at first sight. Nielsen knew coaching Energy FC was the right fit despite not knowing anything about Oklahoma City. When he made his first trip here, his passion for his newest endeavor only grew fonder.
“I didn't think anyone knew about Energy FC until I came down here. I was wrong,” he said. “They know a lot about soccer. They are very optimistic and very positive. I want Energy FC to be the city's team. They are the main key, and I will do anything in my power to make it successful.”
When asked if he was nervous about going into the inaugural season this spring, Nielsen let out a long “no.”
“I want the fans to be happy when we win and to be sad when we lose. That will mean they care,” he said.
Not willing to reveal too much about how games will be played in Oklahoma City, Nielsen did say one thing will happen. His players will “bring it.”
“I won't get angry at a player who plays a bad game. I will get angry at a player who doesn't bring it,” he said.
Nielsen said in a lifetime of soccer, he has seen plenty of very talented players who aren't willing to work hard for a goal. They aren't willing to push through adversity. Those types of players won't make it with Energy FC.
The 2014 regular season kicks off in March, and under the reign of Nielsen, Energy FC is hoping to make a splash.
“Well I'm a competitive guy and I'm going to bring out a competitive team as well,” he said. “Without knowing that much about the opponents, we're focused on ourselves right now. We don't have any final goals, but I don't think I'll hurt anyone by saying we want to make that playoffs.”