Jimmy Nielsen gets asked about the weather a lot.
“It’s that damned weather again,” he growls in good humor thinking back on some of the highest points in his career as a professional goalkeeper. And while everyone remembers the 2013 MLS Cup Final, played in a sub-arctic Kansas City hell-scape, it was the year before that, the 2012 U.S. Open Cup Final, that still brings the goose bumps.
“There was bad weather before that game too,” Nielsen said of the Final against a Seattle Sounders side that had won the previous three Open Cups and was delayed for an hour as a huge storm surged through KC dropping hail and whipping winds around the sold-out Livestrong Sporting Park (Now Children’s Mercy Park). “The announcer came over the PA system and told all the fans to evacuate, to take cover. We were stuck in the locker room. And when I went to peek at the stadium and see how bad the storm was, not one person had left. They were all just cheering and dancing in their seats. They were all just going crazy there in the rain!”
(Jimmy Nielsen won MLS Cup & an Open Cup in his days at SKC)
Nielsen, back in the Open Cup again as head coach of first-year USL Championship outfit Hartford Athletic, took it as a sign. It wasn’t the only one. “Ask anybody who was there that night,” he said, his voice soft, remembering the small details of that special night. “When we finally went out for the warm-up, there was a huge double-rainbow over the stadium. Ask anyone – any of the fans, coaches, players and they’ll tell you.”
He was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year for 2012 and the performance he gave in the Final against Seattle was well worth Man of the Match honors. Tangled at 1-1 after extra-time, the close-fought game needed penalties. It’s that stage, super-charged with tension, where Nielsen thrived. “That last kick was from Eddie Johnson. He was a former Kansas City player and I tell you I can still hear the sound of the fans behind me when I put my head to my pillow at night,” Nielsen recalled of that decisive shot that sailed over the bar and into the dizzy home crowd. “I can still feel the way the stadium was shaking then. I tell you it gives me goose bumps to this day.”
It was SKC’s first Open Cup crown since 2004, when they were still known as the Kansas City Wizards. Nielsen, the team’s captain and leader, was first to get his hands on the trophy. He also spray-painted a 2012 up on the wall of Open Cup wins in the Stadium, where it sits alongside 2004 and 2015 and 2017 in a living testament to the club – and long-time coach Peter Vermes’ – devotion to the 106-year-old competition.
The legend of Jimmy Nielsen only grew from there. It culminated the following year, in 2013, with another penalty shootout at that very stadium. This time it was MLS Cup and a game remembered mostly for the frigid temperatures that threatened the safety of the players. “It was so cold, the heating system failed,” said Nielsen, who spent the 120 minutes bouncing on his toes and keeping out all-but one Real Salt Lake attack before making two crucial saves in a marathon shootout. “One end of the field it was like playing on concrete. If it were any other game, and not the final, they would have called it off. It was that bad.”
Nielsen, playing with two broken ribs, was the hero once again. He put another trophy in SKC’s bulging cabinet and became a bona fide club hero. In his four seasons in Kansas City, he was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year once, a League All-Star twice, he won an MLS Cup and an Open Cup. But it wasn’t always winners’ medals and champagne celebrations for Nielsen. He’s had his hard days in the Cups too.
The Sweetest Memories
“Some of my best memories of my career are in the Cup,” said the Dane, who’s as up-front and candid about his struggles with a gambling addiction as his failed stints in the English game. “And some of the worst memories in my damned life are in the Cup!”
Playing for his hometown Aalborg BK in Denmark, Nielsen – touted by some early in his career as a natural heir to national hero Peter Schmeichel – reached three Danish Cup Finals. And he lost them all. “Cup Final day is huge in Denmark,” recalled Nielsen, who won the Danish SuperLiga in 1998-99. “It’s like a national holiday – you play always in the main stadium in the capital, in Copenhagen, in front of 40,000 fans and really the whole country is paying attention. Three finals played and three lost. Disappointing.”
(Nielsen puts up the Cup in 2012)
There’s ups and there’s downs. You can’t have rainbows without the rain. When you talk to Jimmy Nielsen, you’re talking to a man who knows the score. He’ll tell it to you straight and he’ll pull no punches. Currently in charge of Hartford Athletic, the first-year USL Championship team out of Central Connecticut, his new post has been no sunshine holiday thus far. After 11 games, the team has amassed a record of one win, one draw and nine losses. That’s good enough for dead last in the league’s Eastern Conference.
“It’s not easy building up a club from scratch,” said the 41-year-old Nielsen. “If it were, everyone would be doing it. There are many things to consider when you bring in guys, recruits, and you have a sense of how they will play and what it will all look like. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to get 21 guys, who’ve never played together, up and running and playing the right way. You have to have guys fit in on and off the field and you need leaders to emerge.”
By any measure, it’s been a bumpy start for Nielsen and his Athletic. But hope springs eternal in the Open Cup – a place where minor and major miracles can, and do, materialize. Few know this better than Nielsen. “It’s the Cup and you get one shot,” said the coach, who guided his side to the 2019 Third Round after a 2-1 win over the NPSL’s New York Cosmos. “You lose and you’re out. There’s no other game on Saturday to make up for it. Anything can happen on a Cup day and that’s why charming things happen every year in the Cup.”
Ups & Downs in the Cup
As coach of OKC Energy, his first coaching post, Nielsen learned a little about how a team can punch above their weight. His Oklahomans were seconds from taking the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer to extra-time in the 2017 Fourth Round and they pushed eventual champs FC Dallas all the way to a penalty shootout the year before that. “It’s about percentages and if you play above yourself, as an underdog, and the other team, the favorite, lacks spark, things might even out. In my experience, I’ve seen it.”
(Hartford Athletic represents a new Open Cup challenge for Nielsen)
In the short term, a Third Round contest with Memphis 901 offers an immediate opportunity for Nielsen and Hartford Athletic. “Beating the Cosmos was a chance to play Memphis 901 again – that’s how I saw it – because we played our worst game of the season against them and now we have a chance to show who we are for real,” said Nielsen, referring to a 2-1 loss earlier this month that capped a terrible run of league form. “The team we were that night, that’s not who we are and now we have a chance to show that. It’s an opportunity.”
Nielsen stays grounded through the ups and the downs – the sunbursts and downpours and all those Open Cup glories and agonies. Opportunities live and breathe in the Open Cup and they aren’t fantasies to him. They’re real and they’re immediate. “It’s unrealistic to think that we are going to win the Open Cup,” said the man who still gets goose bumps thinking back to his winning Cup Final in 2012 and the rainbow that promised it. “The road to that is very long, but there is a shorter road to a good experience for our club – maybe playing an MLS team. That would be something.”