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.

Santiago Castaño: Outstanding or Overrated?

Everybody Soccer is back with a second edition of "outstanding or overrated" after reviewing Bill Hamid's approach earlier this year. I had trouble thinking of a new title so here we are. Now it's a reoccurring theme.

Santiago Castaño is likely best known to US fans for his last minute switching to Colombia, just ahead of the 2015 U20 World Cup. Castaño had spent much time with the US's U20 program, predominantly as the backup to Zack Steffen. Even though he attended a Colombian camp ahead of the announcement, several fans were still shocked to hear his change of mind when he basically had a ticket punched to the 2015 U20 World Cup with the US. Even more confusing, he would not make the roster for Colombia and ended up being left at home by both countries. For more information about Castaño's switch, read this translated interview with Facundo Trotta.

Outside of the international stage, Castaño spent this year with New York Red Bulls II, earning twenty starts in the regular season and a trip to the quarterfinals, where they lost 2-0 to the eventual champions. Let's take a closer look at this last season to break down his strengths and weaknesses. US Prospects was kind enough to have made a highlight video for the Colombian-American goalkeeper back in April.

Strengths

Castaño possess a fierce mindset as well as quick reactions and above average distribution. He is not afraid to attack on a 1v1. He showcases an above average side volley and good throws from his hands. He strongly favors his left foot in kicking and generally knows how to locate a teammate in a positive space. He has good experience on the youth international stage and skipped the college route to join the New York Red Bulls, a system that has done good job of developing young goalkeepers.

Weaknesses

There are quite a few worrying issues with Castaño's play. First, while he is listed as 6'2", he most definitely is not. 

On the left, he is walking away form Mike da Font (6'0.5"). On the right, he is standing next to Konrad Plewa (6’3”) and Colin Heffron (6'0") is the blonde player the next one down. Castaño is most definitely not over six feet tall and could possibly be 5'11". Yes, you can be a short goalkeeper and become a professional, but there is a reason why there are more goalkeepers taller than six feet instead of shorter.

Additionally, Castaño does not display the explosiveness you'd like to see from a short goalkeeper. In the 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh, he concedes three goals that all could have been saved had he had more explosiveness in his spring.

On the opening laser, he can only rotate for the shot he is clearly unprepared for. Notice how his right leg is receiving much more spring than his left. His left knee doesn't move that far vertically and the right leg is recoiling more from the power. The overpowering motion from his back leg gives Castaño's body movement a teeter effect (as seen with how high his right left comes off the ground). The movement is similar to goalkeeping great Oliver Kahn, although not unique to the German, but Kahn pushed off equally with each foot to create the needed lift that comes with getting his body so parallel to the ground. (I wrote more about Kahn's technique here.) The next two goals are within Castaño's grasp but the dive doesn't come from a bigger issue.

I have not been quiet on my distaste of Howard's wide stance and Castaño gives us another example why it's not a good idea. His set position, one that is routinely slow and late to occur, is employing a wide stance that does not allow him to step towards the ball when it is shot unless he rearranges his feet, which happened on the first goal when he stepped away from the ball with his lead foot.

It's a huge jump to get set and when he finally does, the ball is half way to him and his feet are too wide for him to step towards the ball. All he can do is roll backwards, which is what he does. If he is in time with the shot and in a position to actually move towards the ball, he can make the save instead of stare at the ball hitting the net. A very similar situation happens on the next goal.

There's more to say about Castaño. His wide stance kills his lateral movement and his post-to-post time is slow. He opens up his five-hole too much. (He's megged in the Wilmington game, video above, as well as Richmond fairly easily.) He is on his heels far too often. His 1v1 approach is wild and not intended to play percentages while utilizing some hybrid of a crab stance while he waits for players to get closer (see red card in Wilmington game). He's not particularly great in the air. He also is very reluctant to use his right foot for distribution.

Conclusion

Cody Cropper has shown us how hard it is to develop with bad mechanics. Can it be done? Sure, but it's not likely. For Castaño to continue to grow, he needs to revamp his entire approach to the game. His time with the USYNT means nothing. Several goalkeepers have gone through the USYNT scene only to amount to journeymen backups and that's the path Castaño is on if something doesn't change soon. While twenty sounds young, he has been playing a certain way for some time now. He is becoming less moldable and some of his peers - sophomores in college - are already ahead of him.