Jimmy Nielsen: Outstanding or Overrated

This is the third installment of Outstanding or Overrated, following an in-depth look at Bill Hamid and Santiago Castaño.

Earlier this month I published my take on the top 50 MLS goalkeepers of all-time. I knew leaving certain goalkeepers off the list would receive some backlash but I really tried to cover the entire scope of the league's history. While some people were disappointed not to see Jimmy Nielsen (2013 MLS Cup winner, 20th in all-time appearances, lowest GAA in MLS history) on the list, no one asked about Matt Jordan or Jeff Causey (combined 206 appearances). Goalkeepers like David Kramer or Tom Presthus are relegated to footnotes of goalkeeping stats because people don't know about the first decade of the league.

So while some might want to say a certain goalkeeper should or shouldn't be in a list, they should first be aware of the majority of the goalkeeper pool. How can anyone say a goalkeeper should be considered one of the best if they're unaware of the league's history? Additionally, if someone wants to make their own top MLS goalkeepers list, that would be great as the only other one out there is the fan poll MLS ran last year.

 

Defending on Thin Ice

It’s always dicey to speak negatively on a beloved athlete. Specifically within American soccer, and especially goalkeepers, there is little room for criticism. Some may talk about how everyone points at the goalkeeper when a goal is concede, but think about all the critical goalkeeping-specific articles you read from MLS writers last year. I honestly can't think of any. There might be a little blurb here or there but few were in-depth and informational to the reader. The last time MLS was all on board about a bad goalkeeper might have been Carlo Cudicini. (On a side note, please email your favorite soccer journalists and outlets demanding more critique on MLS goalkeepers.)

I would expect most people's top fifty list to contain Jimmy Nielsen and I would love to hear anyone's thoughts behind such a ranking. However, as we've seen in the current political climate, opposing sides should ideally meet in the middle to discuss, not from afar. Just like how I should be able to back up my claim without just vaguely tossing a comment out, others should be able to listen to opposing arguments without blindly accepting what someone else told them. This strengthens both sides at the end of the day.

This write-up is designed to back my stance on excluding Nielsen from the list but at the same time not delegate him as the worst goalkeeper ever. There have been a number of great goalkeepers in MLS and simply playing in the league is a sign of achievement. It's silly that I have to precede my write up with this approach. (What other journalist in another sport has to take the route?) But given the landscape, it’s just where we are at the moment. Perhaps when there are other critical goalkeeper articles being posted, then I can pass on this part, but until then this is the default.

Most love the White Puma and understandably so. From his bleach blonde hair to his typical pink goalkeeper jersey, nothing about Nielsen is easy to gloss over. Even his last game in MLS was historic, making two penalty saves to help SKC beat Real Salt Lake for the 2013 MLS Cup. He then transitioned to giving back to the American game by coaching a USL side, Oklahoma City Energy. There were a number of accolades and awards throughout his career but looking back on his career, there are a few misleading things people typically point to.

 

“Oh, you mean the guy with the best Goals Against Average in league history?”

Jimmy Nielsen is most notably MLS’s all-time leader in the career goals against average (GAA) stat. Jimmy Nielsen set an incredible GAA mark of 0.99 over the course of 128 games. While this stat seems like an appropriate standard for how good a goalkeeper is, it’s the equivalent to a center in basketball being credited with his team’s points allowed per game stat. In no other sport does one single player get the sole responsibility for their team’s points allowed per game. The closest example we can find is with a pitcher in baseball but even then, it’s earned run average, not unearned. And most of us are familiar with how there are an infinite number of stats to tell how good a pitcher is, not just one overarching number.

Looking down MLS's all-time top 10 GAA, there are definitely some head-scratchers. Donovan Ricketts sits at number three, over Nick Rimando at six. Josh Saunders is above Kevin Hartman. No one in their right mind would argue that Ricketts and Saunders were better goalkeepers than Rimando or Hartman. It’s not even close. Ricketts and Saunders were fine goalkeepers but no where near two of the most influential goalkeepers in the league’s history. So already we should be suspect of the stat.

Number of games where Gruenebaum and Nielsen had 0-7 saves to make. Nielsen had six games where he had zero saves, while Gruenebaum only had two.

Number of games where Gruenebaum and Nielsen had 0-7 saves to make. Nielsen had six games where he had zero saves, while Gruenebaum only had two.

Nielsen was in the league from 2010-2013, with his two most notable years coming in 2012-2013. In 2012 he had an unbelievable .79 GAA and a 74% save percentage. Looking across the isle, Columbus Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum had a 74.7% save percentage but with a forgettable 1.24 GAA. How can this be? Despite having similar save percentages, Gruenebaum simply played on a worse defense where he was constantly getting shelled.

In 2012, the average saves per game for an MLS goalkeeper was a little over three. Looking at the chart, 26 of Nielsen’s games in 2012 (76% of the season!) were below the average amount of saves per game. While Gruenebaum only had the less than three saves per game 55% of the season. For Nielsen to maintain a .79 GAA while seeing as many shots as Gruenebaum did, he would have had to held an unheard of 84% save percentage.

Following Nielsen's retirement, Sporting Kansas City split time between Eric Kronberg and recently acquired Andy Gruenebaum in 2014. The two goalkeepers earned a 1.10 and 1.09 GAA, respectively, yet SKC let both goalkeepers walk at the end of the season, even though they had great GAAs.

Two years before coming to Kansas City, Nielsen allowed 1.79 goals per game in a season where his team was relegated. However no one points at that stat - not even me - as proof for him being a bad goalkeeper. There's too much noise to really say for sure. Ultimately GAA, and goalkeeping stats in general, are non-repeatable, meaning there is too much noise to credit a bulk of the responsibility on one player.

 

Going Out on Top

It's understandable for someone to link Sporting Kansas City's 2013 Cup run to Jimmy Nielsen. However, I have a hard time crediting him with a bulk of the success of the team performance. Starting by his performance in the final, Nielsen dodged a bullet more than once. In the final game he punched a ball backwards towards his own goal, almost gifting RSL an early goal. In the 52nd minute he was in terrible position and reacted very poorly to the opening goal. Ten minutes later he is almost scored on from a bouncing ball from 30 yards out. Another ten minutes pass and we see Nielsen almost getting chipped from outside the 18 because he is so far off his line. In extra time, he struggles to cover the goalmouth on a fairly standard cross but is saved by a offside call. RSL missed the frame twice in 10 penalty kicks and on the second save, Nielsen was about five feet off his line when the ball was struck. It's hard to say Nielsen was a main reason why Sporting won that night.

Even outside the final, his last season in MLS is solely remembered for winning the Cup. When he wasn’t busy faking head injuries, his performance in 2013 simply wasn't that outstanding. (There are five different links there.) The 2013 Sporting Kansas City team had one of the best defenses in MLS history. There was a reason why we didn’t hear much cry when Jimmy Nielsen accounted for zero of the thirty-two submissions for that year's MLS Save of the Year competition. It's because he didn't have a whole lot to do in net.

 

What to Make of Nielsen's Career

By the time Nielsen came to MLS, his footwork had considerably slowed down. Going post-to-post, he was probably the slowest goalkeeper in the league. He struggled on crosses (something SKC’s backline dealt with for the most part) and wasn’t particularly good on 1v1 situations. Footwork issues hindered him in making lateral movements, both on shots toward the post but also lobbed balls over the top, which were more frequent with how high of a line he played. His positioning was fine for the most part but I wouldn’t call it great, as again his feet were so sluggish to tweak his positioning. Some people may point to his veteran status in the locker room but no fan can truly attest to how impactful that was, not to mention that surely most MLS goalkeepers also fill the leadership status a team needs.

Perhaps the single biggest reason why Nielsen was not on the top 50 list was because he came to the league when he was in the twilight of his career. It’s the same reason why Kasey Keller rates so slowly on the list (at 20th behind Dan Kennedy and Matt Pickens). Neither Keller or Nielsen were at their best when they played in MLS but were unquestionably better when they were in their prime. The fact that they played for so long is a testament to that.

So was Jimmy Nielsen a good goalkeeper? Absolutely. It’s just unfortunate we didn’t get to see that part of his career in MLS. He adapted his conservative playing style to match Kansas City's needs. They didn’t need someone to save them every game. They needed a goalkeeper to keep the ship steady. It seems like every match there would be a close opportunity and Nielsen would, instead of getting ready for the goal kick, run up the field and scream in the face of one of his teammates. He did a great job of setting the tone and controlling the pace when things got out of hand. He was an iconic part of the 2013 MLS Cup team and was a fan favorite for the entire SKC fanbase. While I think there are better goalkeepers in the league than a 33-37 year old who had just left Denmark's second division, he did a fine job when he did come over. Simply put, he had several positives to his play but there were better goalkeepers during his tenure.