While watching Sporting KC lift MLS Cup, a thought went through my head regarding goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. It's hard not to judge Nielsen's career with Kansas City compared to that of Sporting Legend, Tony Meola. Up until Nielsen's arrival, Meola appeared to be on an untouchable level among goalkeepers for Kansas City.
After four years here though I think Nielsen has equaled or bettered Meola for his time with Kansas City.
Statistically, Nielsen has bettered numbers that I wasn't sure another goalkeeper would reach. Playing a similar number of games as Meola (128 league for Nielsen vs 125 for Meola), Nielsen recorded more wins, 57 to 49, had more shutouts 45 to 37, and a lower goals against average .99 to 1.22.
In all competitions, Meola made more appearances than Nielsen 156 to 142, but Nielsen topped him in wins 65 to 63, shutouts, 52 to 47, and GAA .95 to 1.24.
Nielsen ends his career as the all time leader in MLS for goals against average for a goalkeeper with over 1,000 minutes played at .99. Meola meanwhile retired as the MLS all time leader in basically every category a goalkeeper could hold.
Award wise, Meola leads that category, winning goalkeeper of the year, comeback player of the year, league MVP and MLS Cup MVP all in 2000, where he set a number of a single season records. Nielsen topped many of those records in 2012 on his way to winning goalkeeper of the year in 2012. One he didn't top was Meola's single season shutout record of 16.
The other thing that both players will likely be judged on is their performance in the league's marquee game, MLS Cup. For me this one isn't an argument, although I've had people go the opposite way. For me, the better performance goes to Meola. Nielsen made some big saves, including two in the PK shootout, but I don't think you can top Meola's 10 save performance. While Nielsen made the two penalty stops, and the mystique of doing it with 2 broken ribs will surely help his argument, the rest of his game was not that good. He got beaten to the near post, which most goalkeepers will tell you is a cardinal sin, on RSL's goal, and was saved by the goalkeepers best friend, the post, on three other chances by Salt Lake. The first by Robbie Findley in a situation very similar to the one Findley scored on when the teams met in the regular season. The second a long range effort by Kyle Beckerman that bounced and hit the post, although Nielsen may have had it covered. The third he was left to watch Javier Morales' curling shot hit the base of the post and some how curl around the opposite post.
Now to be fair, Meola was also saved by his cross bar on an effort by Diego Gutierrez, oddly in a situation the exact opposite of Findley's miss for Salt Lake. Instead of coming off his line to attempt to punch a ball clear, Meola stayed at home, but Gutierrez missed.
In the end I think Nielsen will likely go down as the better keeper for KC, eventually taking his place as a Sporting Legend. But Meola is not that far behind Nielsen.