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May 5, 2010

K.C.'s bet on 'Casino Jimmy' pays off

When Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad heard the nickname of the Wizards' new goalkeeper this offseason -- "Casino Jimmy" -- he braced himself for a risk taker in net. Conrad expected a cocky guy who strutted around the box shouting instructions to his charges. Moreover, he had visions of "Casino Jimmy" cleaning him out, along with the rest of the Wizards, during their weekly card games. Then, Jimmy Nielsen arrived in Kansas City from Denmark for preseason camp. He quietly appeared in the locker room with no flash, no frills. "I was surprised, he was a great fit. He was just one of the guys," Conrad said. "He is pretty quiet. But you know he's still around. He's a guy who knows when to speak up. Jimmy has experience, he's shined overseas, but he doesn't have an attitude. Jimmy is a solid dude, and that just makes you want to play for him even more." As it turns out, Nielsen is more "kick back" than "casino." Most of the Wizards and their supporters refer to him by another nickname: "The White Puma." A teammate dubbed him that after marveling at his saves during a training session 15 years ago with Aalborg BK in the Danish Superliga. Nielsen, 32, moved like a cat then, and here in the MLS he appears poised to pounce on opponents. Kansas City's new keeper opened the season by allowing just one goal in his first four games. Houston torched Nielsen in a 3-0 win over the Wizards (2-2-1) last Saturday, but two of the Dynamo's goals came after Kansas City midfielder Davy Arnaud's controversial ejection in the 33rd minute. Going forward, the Wizards expect to see more of the Nielsen who played lights-out in the first four games. And his performance this summer will be big, especially considering the reputation of his predecessor: popular keeper Kevin Hartman -- the league's all-time leader in saves, wins and shutouts -- with whom Kansas City couldn't come to terms during the offseason. "People told me when I got here how fantastic the last goalkeeper was," Nielsen said politely. "I can't change myself, I can't be Kevin Hartman. I'm not going to try to be Hartman. I'm going to be myself all the way. Some people might not like it, but I will never change myself." So far, Nielsen, one of 10 international players Kansas City has added to its roster this year, is a hit with teammates. He fits right into the locker room. On the field, his powerful game commands respect. He's technically sound in the box, clinical, reading opposing runs as they develop up the field. Then Nielsen snuffs them out, always taking the right line on an opponent's would-be scoring opportunity. Nielsen's defenders love him because he's understanding, despite knowing he ultimately may end up answering for their missteps. Unlike some goalkeepers, Nielsen doesn't fly into a rage, waving his hands and yelling, when one of his defenders gets toasted. Instead, Nielsen talks to his teammates calmly, maybe throws an arm around a defender during a stoppage of play to go over the mistake. "It's been a good venture with [Nielsen]," Conrad said a day before the Houston loss. "I would say it's been seamless." Added Kansas City coach Peter Vermes: "Jimmy doesn't lose his mind in tough situations. That's unique, a great thing. He's more teacher-like. The way he works with guys is huge. We knew we had a guy who would be a good goalie in this league, but he has already exceeded expectations." Nielsen arrived stateside after 16 years in Europe, most of them playing in his native Denmark. He said Danish writers dubbed him "Casino Jimmy" four years ago, after fans of an Aalborg opponent started chanting the moniker. Nielsen admits he once had a gambling problem. He said he lost thousands of dollars playing, mainly, roulette and blackjack in casinos. Nielsen received nine months of treatment for gambling addiction in 2004. Two years later, Nielsen published his autobiography in Denmark -- "1,000 On Red" -- which detailed his struggles with gambling. He said he no longer gambles, but Nielsen doesn't mind being called "Casino Jimmy." "I feel open about it," he said. "It's part of me. I talk about it. That's why I wrote the book, to try to help other people. I almost lost everything, my family, everything close to me. I had to stop. I hurt a lot of people." Nielsen landed in Kansas City in February -- less than a month before preseason -- after negotiations fizzled with Hartman. According to Vermes, talks with Hartman (who now backs up Dario Sala for FC Dallas) started in December and lasted almost two months. He said the Wizards and Hartman could not agree on salary and terms of a deal, with Hartman seeking a one-year deal and Kansas City hoping to lock him up for three years. As discussions stalled, Vermes said, he entertained the idea of a trade within the league to replace Hartman. Nothing developed, so Vermes reached out to his European connections. Meanwhile, Nielsen was unhappy playing for Danish side Vejle Boldklub. The Wizards' coach and the disgruntled keeper connected through a mutual friend, and Vejle agreed to let Nielsen out of his contract. He signed with Kansas City for four years, and the Wizards subsequently shipped Hartman to Dallas for a second-round selection in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. Hartman, 35, had appeared in every minute of every regular-season game in three seasons with Kansas City. Still, Nielsen's early flashes -- combined with the play of Conrad, Matt Besler and Pablo Escobar in back -- have the Wizards hopeful that they can make a playoff run in an important year: Kansas City opens a new stadium next season. Even in light of the recent debacle against Houston, the Wizards' new goalie could end up being a keeper. And whatever Nielsen's teammates envisioned when they heard "Casino Jimmy" was converging on the Midwest, the reality is wholly different: a team player who deflects the attention he has gained for his impressive start. "That is because of my teammates," Nielsen said of his early-season success. "They have been great. They make it a lot easier for me. What has really impressed me is that we have come together so quickly as a team on the pitch."

Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at rodriguezespn@yahoo.com.

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