KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen announced his retirement Monday night, two days after he made a pair of dramatic saves in a penalty kick shootout against Real Salt Lake to secure his club its first MLS Cup in more than a decade.
Nielsen made the announcement during a title celebration at Union Station.
"I want to thank the ownership group, my teammates, my coaches and the entire organization for the opportunity to have four of the best years of my life, not only mine but my family as well, here in Kansas City," Nielsen said. "I will remember these years forever."
Nielsen kept Sporting KC tied with Real Salt Lake through regulation and overtime Saturday night before making two saves in the penalty kick shootout. Sporting KC eventually prevailed 7-6 in frigid weather to win its first league championship since the 2000 season.
Nielsen was so overcome with emotion following the game that he retreated from the club's locker room to a back room, away from reporters and TV cameras.
"To the best soccer fans: Since Day 1 they have always been behind me and I want to thank them for all the support," Nielsen said. "It was the perfect timing, finishing with a great championship that the entire city deserves."
Nielsen began his career in England and played the majority of it in his native Denmark, but said he was at a crossroads in his career when Sporting KC sought him out several years ago.
He wound up agreeing to a contract with the MLS club, even though he barely knew where Kansas was on a map, and instantly became a hit with fans. Nielsen played every minute of Sporting KC's last 100 matches, made two All-Star game appearances and was voted the league's top goalkeeper a year ago.
It wasn't just his play that endeared Nielsen to fans, though. It was his personality.
He became known for stopping his car at local parks when he'd be driving by and joining in games with random children. Often, Nielsen would pull kids out of the crowd and have them kick balls at him as part of his pre-game warm-up. The recent release of his autobiography, "Welcome to the Blue Heaven: Don't Bet Against the Goalkeeper," chronicled the way he overcame an addiction to gambling.
All of it resonated with Sporting KC fans who nicknamed Nielsen the "White Puma," and who would often show up at games with their own version of his bleach-blonde hair.
"What an incredible way to end a career," Sporting Club chief executive Rob Heineman said in a statement. "Jimmy Nielsen is so important to this organization on and off the field, and we look forward to the next phase of our relationship."
He retires with club records for regular-season games played (128), games started (128), minutes played (11,497), wins (57), ties (32), winning percentage (.575) and shutouts (45).
Nielsen's career goals-against average of 0.99 is the best in MLS history among goalkeepers with a minimum of 1,000 regular-season minutes played.
"He has been instrumental to the success of this organization over the last four years," Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. "And as much as I'm sad to see him go, I am delighted that he leaves the game as a champion based on the fact that he is a true winner."