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.
Continue reading this story on the...