Jimmy Nielsen: Living a Childhood Fantasy
Jimmy Nielsen remembers the first time he wanted to be a coach. It was 30 years ago. In first grade.
"It was in my head," says Nielsen. "At recess, I split up the classes and made teams. It was deep inside me."
Sporting KC's former team captain from Denmark was designing defenses in the dirt long before he debated the virtue of a 4-4-2 vs. 4-3-3.
At age 36, Nielsen is having his "50 First Dates" moment, moving forward while turning the clocks back in time.
In December, he was hired as the first head coach for OKC Energy FC, a developmental team in the USL PRO that's connected with Major League Soccer in general and Sporting Kansas City, in particular. Sporting KC will loan a limited number of players to help stock the Energy roster.
For Nielsen, it feels like 2010 all over again. That's when he came to Kansas City, a place he couldn't find on the map, a town that embraced him with anonymity.
Initially, being invisible was a nice change.
"I came from an extremely crazy soccer city," Nielsen says. "I couldn't walk on the street. It was an easy life that first year in Kansas City. The Wizards were not the biggest deal in town. I see the same thing (in Oklahoma City)."
Nielsen acknowledges he knows as much about OKC as he did about Kansas City four years ago: "Zero."
Oklahoma City's greeting will likely be the same, with locals confusing the "White Puma" for Dolph Lundgren, Billy Idol or David Bowie. After all, that's Sooner country, not soccer country.
OKC's crash course is coming soon. Nielsen will coach Energy's first regular season that runs from April to September.
Not everyone who plays for Nielsen will make the jump to Major League Soccer, but that better be their goal.
"Young players (in the United States) from 10 to 18 are getting a lot better," Nielsen says. "The level keeps raising. MLS should be one of the best leagues in the next 10 years. My job (with the Energy) is to keep 'em fit and motivated. There's a right way to play, the way Sporting KC plays. Powerful. Physical. Attractive soccer. We have to play as a team. If we don't win, I'll ask myself if I did everything right. I can't stand losing."
From humble beginnings in the mid 1990s, MLS is shedding its label as a retirement league, that graveyard for former stars on a three-chord reunion tour. For one thing, fans are more informed and know the difference. The upside for Nielsen is he gets to build a team from scratch.
MLS Victory Celebration
Which is also the downside.
"Jimmy's already getting a taste of it," Peter Vermes says. "A lot of agents want to reach out to him."
And so it begins for a player who's crossing the line from captain to coach, from best buddy to the big, bad boss.
Vermes, Sporting KC's manager and technical director, knows the scenario all too well.
"I don't sleep very well, not when you oversee everything," Vermes says. "That becomes your focus. You worry about all the intersections of everything. The hardest part is you understand you can't just worry about yourself anymore."
Nielsen was 90 percent sure he would retire after the past season. That number jumped to 95 percent when Sporting KC won the MLS Cup at a frozen Sporting Park, beating Real Salt Lake on the 20th penalty kick. Vermes pushed him in an exit meeting to make it 100 percent.
"It's such a difficult time for every player," Vermes says. "But I told him there's a chance to go out as a legend. You made the last save, won a championship ... held up that trophy. Or be a guy that tries to hang on for one more year."
Nielsen played hurt throughout this past post-season, a closely-guarded secret outside of the locker room. He suffered broken ribs in the first playoff game at Houston, injured while coming out on a cross and catching a knee to the mid-section. It was painful to walk, sit, lay down, even breathe.
That meant limited time in training, pain-killing injections and making no excuses. It's a bite-the-bullet toughness that translates to this next phase of life.
"He has the strength and personality to call guys out," Vermes added. "Not everybody's your buddy anymore. You make decisions based on what's right for the organization. But he connects with people very well. Players respect Jimmy and the great work ethic they see on the field."
Nielsen understands the complexities of a locker room. Nearly half his 19-year career was spent as a captain at three different stops. The job comes with unwritten responsibilities as a chauffeur, tour guide and camp counselor. That often means massaging egos that go against what's best for the team. However, there was precious little in-fighting with the 2013 Cup winners.
"This was the easiest group to deal with," Jimmy beamed. "I came from a place with a roster that hated each other."
Sporting's solidarity and make-up was by design. Six players on the championship team were homegrown, products of the Kansas City youth soccer scene. With Nielsen on the job in Oklahoma City, Vermes says that number could go up again.
While Sporting plans to continue developing youth through its Academy system, USL talent potentially offers more immediate help.
"It's part of a grandiose plan," says Vermes. "Jimmy understands our culture. As we approach our evolution, he's an integral part of the future."
A new job and career path means uprooting his family, eventually. Jimmy's wife and two daughters, Mille and Isabella, will stay in Kansas City through the end of the school year before joining him in Oklahoma. By comparison, it's a small delay for a couple that's dealt with distance before. Jimmy and Jannie were teenage sweethearts in Denmark. At age 14 and a year older, Jannie told her mom she'd met the man she planned to marry. But not until their love was thoroughly tested.
Jimmy Nielsen leads MLS Victory Celebration
Jimmy's gambling addiction made him a monsoon of instability. That's why Jannie would take a waitress job in Odense, a two-hour drive from their home town of Aalborg. In 1997, their relationship was non-existent, although their connection couldn't be severed. After a visit to Odense, Jimmy received what amounted to a courtesy call six months later. It was informative in nature, not invitational.
Jannie was pregnant, due in March and Jimmy wasn't allowed to be part of it. He was stunned, excited and out of the picture. But conceded nothing.
"I had to convince Jannie I needed to be in her life," Nielsen says. "I tried to charm her, saying we would be a good family."
After that phone call, Nielsen took off in a relentless pursuit of family: Jannie and daughter Mille, who turns 16 this month.
Jannie moved home for the balance of her pregnancy, moved in when Mille was 3 months old, then agreed to marry Jimmy after his third proposal. Their wedding was a simple ceremony with only Mom, Dad, daughter and a witness.
"Family changed my whole life, the way you think," Nielsen says. "Before, I only had to think about myself."
Sort of like his soccer career.
Instead of the captain, he's the all-encompassing coach with big plans.
"Coaching in MLS, that's a goal," Nielsen says. "As for a timetable, I'll keep it in my head. I wouldn't mind being part of Sporting again."
For now, he is as an extension of a championship organization that values his role.
"I'm starting all over again," Nielsen says. "I couldn't ask for more. I have an exciting career, amazing kids, an amazing wife. Now it's on to the next chapter of my life. I've got a job I wanted for years. It can't get any better."
photos: Mike Gunnoe