February 6, 2014

OKC Energy's Nielsen used to building soccer from scratch

Adam Troxtell
The Express-Star


If anyone knows how to break free from the bonds of obscurity, it is Jimmy Nielsen.

As a goalkeeper in Denmark, he had to follow in the footsteps of the great Peter Schmeichel -- famous for his stint at Manchester United and for winning the European Championship with the Danes in 1992. Nielsen had to make a name for himself with such stars in front of him, and he did. That wasn't the end.

When he made the jump to the United States' top tier Major League Soccer, he went to another team with a famous goalkeeping history to compete against. The great American Tony Meola and MLS stalwart Kevin Hartman called Kansas City home for years before Nielsen stepped between the posts in 2010. Four years and two trophies later, the fans are happy to add him to that list of team greats. In 2012, he became the first Kansas City goalkeeper since Meola (2000) to be named to the end of season All-MLS team.

So when he takes the field this spring as the first head coach of Oklahoma City Energy FC in the USL PRO league, he'll have an idea of how the players and possibly the franchise's first die-hard fans, feel.

"I have my ideas that I want to bring to the organization and to the players," Nielsen said. "But my method to my players, myself, the organization, is to be yourself. Come in and bring everything you have on and off the field to make this team a success."

Such a positive demeanor could prove important as Nielsen brings together a group of players that have a tough, yet possible, task of building the sport inland rather than the coasts where soccer thrives. Coming from MLS, and specifically Kansas City, it's hard not to be positive about the direction soccer is going in America.

"It's ridiculous; it's flying right now," Nielsen said. "In Kansas City, when you drive around and see all the baseball parks, and you see kids playing soccer on the baseball parks. That makes me smile a little bit. You want to see the kids out there."

More importantly, there at least appears to be somewhat of a fan base in Oklahoma City. It is home to a passionate branch of the American Outlaws, the United States National Team supporters organization that has made trips to Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio, to watch their team play. These are the type of fans Energy FC will need; young to middle-aged adults with disposable incomes and a dedication to the game.

But Nielsen and the Energy FC back room team are dedicating more of their efforts to reaching out to everyone, specifically families with children who are growing up playing America's fastest growing sport.

"I've only been here a short time, but the first time I was here I was impressed so many people already knew Energy FC," Nielsen said. "The organization has done a good job so far of branding this team and all the promoting. A winning team is not only a record. You need the community and the support for the team as well. If you don't have that, there is no team."

It will certainly be more difficult to build this team up in the midwestern United States than, say, Nielsen's native Denmark, where he said soccer is tantamount to religion (and it is replaced only by hockey in the winter). 

Much like the kids picking up the sport now, Nielsen approaches coaching with a sort of wide-eyed enthusiasm, since it's something he has wanted since he was a child in school.

"You should've seen me in school, at recess I was organizing the team when we were playing; 'you are playing defender, you're in back, you're up front,'" he said. "There's always been a little coach in me, and in the last seven or eight years I've been coaching a little bit here and there."

Having spent time under Pete Vermes, the man who took Sporting Kansas City from mediocrity to 2013 MLS Champions, and the fact that his favorite team is FC Baarcelona, it seems Nielsen has a predisposition toward an attractive, attacking style of soccer. Implementing that with Energy FC will be a worthwhile process. 

Fans will come to watch the new team out of novelty, but they will only stay for winners and success. Aside from the difficulties expansion teams usually experience in their first season, there's the separate North American Soccer League team that will start in Oklahoma City in 2015, directly competing with Energy FC for advertising, full stadiums, and possibly even players.

All of this adds to the pressure on Nielsen's shoulders as the first man asked to carry the team forward into relatively unknown territory. But pressure, he says, is part of the job, and a part that he relishes.

"There's got to be pressure," Nielsen said. "That's part of my drive, part of my motivation. If there was no pressure, why would I be here? We want to be part of a community where soccer is the focus as well. There will be a lot of opinions, a lot of discussion about how Energy FC should play, and that's how it should be. I like it."