The only time Sporting Kansas City won an MLS Cup, it boasted the league’s best goalkeeper. Twelve years later, another standout ‘keeper has Sporting KC needing only a positive result to clinch the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
A win or a draw in Wednesday’s season finale at home against Philadelphia would secure the East’s No. 1 spot and No. 2 overall seed. KC can still acquire both with a loss if D.C. United draw or lose versus Chicago on Saturday.
Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen is among the biggest reasons Sporting KC (17-7-9) is in position for its first back-to-back first-place finishes in franchise history.
Sporting KC has allowed a league-low 26 goals in 33 matches, with Nielsen starting every one and recording a league-best 15 shutouts - one shy of Tony Meola’s league-record 16 set in 2000. Meola was named MLS Most Valuable Player that season while leading Kansas City to its only title.
Nielsen’s 0.79 goals-against average leads full-time ‘keepers, and he’s allowed only five goals during Sporting KC’s current league-best 11-match unbeaten streak. He’s posted four clean sheets in his last five matches and made five saves in Saturday’s scoreless draw against New York.
“I think he’s got to be a slam dunk for Goalkeeper of the Year,” coach Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s had so many shutouts, so many great performances, been so consistent from Game 1 all the way through now to Game 33. He’s just a big-time goalkeeper.”
Nielsen, though, will be looking to atone for his worst performance of the season—and one of the worst of his career—versus the Union. Philadelphia rolled to a 4-0 victory June 23 behind two goals from Jack McInerney as Nielsen allowed four goals for only the second time in 96 lifetime starts.
McInerney, who has a team-leading nine goals, has continued to play well since. He scored Philadelphia’s only goal in its 3-1 loss at Houston on Saturday, setting a franchise record by scoring a goal in his fourth consecutive match.
The 20-year-old has undoubtedly sealed a spot on next year’s squad, but the same can’t be said for other members of the Union (10-16-6) heading into the season’s final week.
“At the end of the year, the analysis of our current roster is something we’ll look at very carefully,” manager John Hackworth told the team’s official website. “… It’s our last look at the guys on our current roster and you can’t overstate that. There are some tough decisions we have to make in that locker room.”
Philadelphia, which is locked into an eighth-place finish in the East, has a four-match unbeaten streak (1-0-3) versus Sporting KC.