Jimmy Nielsen paints the wall
Gary Rohman

Awards watch: Team success bodes well for individual player recognition

The 2012 Major League Soccer season has been an exciting year for Sporting Kansas City.

With three games remaining in the regular season, the club holds a 17-7-7 record, has gone unbeaten in the past nine MLS matches, secured a spot in the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs, snapped the Seattle Sounders three-year reign by being crowned the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champions and continue to sit in first place in the Eastern Conference.

Not to mention Sporting Kansas City players are topping individual charts as well.

Midfielder Graham Zusi’s 14 assists put him in a tie for most assists with the LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan. Forward Kei Kamara leads in both shots taken, with 130, and shots on goal, with 48, so far this season while goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has recorded the most shutouts, 14, and best goals against average at 0.81.

After the 2011 season, the only Sporting Kansas City player to receive an MLS award was forward C.J. Sapong, voted MLS Rookie of the Year after a strong opening season where he scored five goals, had five assists and saw playing time in all 34 regular season games.

This season, the potential for Sporting Kansas City to receive additional MLS end-of-the-year awards is well within reach. On and off the field, Sporting Kansas City players and coaches have made an impact.

Defender Matt Besler has been an anchor in central defense and in August was named to the United State’s Men’s National Team roster for the first time in his career ahead of an international friendly against Mexico. 

“Matt has consistently been a part of the lineup,” Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes said. “(He) has very good results, and is a guy that rarely gives too much away when you think about how we have the best goals against average in the League. He’s one of the reasons why that is.”

Teammates also said they think Besler’s consistency makes him one of the best defenders in MLS.

“Matt is one of the, if not the best, center backs in the League right now,” defender Seth Sinovic said. “He’s consistent, he covers my back all the time and he’s just very solid defensively.”

Helping Sporting Kansas City maintain the best goals against average in the League along with Besler is team captain Jimmy Nielsen, the leading contender for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

“This is the first year I’ve made him captain,” Vermes said, “and I think he’s a tremendous leader on the team. He took to the leadership position really well. It’s not an easy position to be in because a lot of times you’re an extension of the staff, so he’s been great from that perspective and he’s got a good way with the rest of the guys.

“He’s strong when he needs to be strong and he’s also a teammate at a time when he needs to be a teammate.”

Working with Nielsen every day is goalkeeping coach John Pascarella and according to Pascarella, it’s a “no-brainer” that Nielsen is the best in the MLS when it comes to his position.

“In the locker room he’s a fantastic leader, which is huge for a team like us because we’re still fairly young,” Pascarella said. “On the field, because of his experience, he’s one of those guys that, even though he’s only called on two or three times a game to do something very good and very well, he’s been able to do that for us, and that shows his maturity.”

Off the field and outside of his hectic life as a professional soccer player, Kamara has shown a relentless commitment to making a difference in his community. His charitable efforts, including starring in a documentary film, have help raised funds for Schools for Salone to benefit the youth of his homeland and Kamara is amongst the most active Sporting KC players when it comes to appearing throughout the metropolitan area for clinics and outreach initiatives.

“Our whole team is excellent, fantastic with the public,” Vermes said. “Kei takes it to another step, though. He’s great social media wise, but at the same time the stuff that he’s doing with Sierra Leone, it’s incredible for him then to have the passion to do the things that he does in regards to his country. There’s not much you can say about it with words. It’s a great testament to him and how he uses his connection back to his country.”

While Vermes sheds praise on his players, they are quick to point to their manager’s role in such a successful season.

He’s done a great job since he took over, and I think you see the result now of all the work he put in at the beginning of his career as a head coach for us,” Nielsen said of Vermes. “I think he put together the kind of roster and the kind of personalities he wants on the roster and I think he’s extremely hard working -- not only him but the whole coaching staff. I’ve never been around coaches who work as much as they do. We’re one of the top teams, you’ve got to give him credit for that. He’s the general manager as well, so to me it’s obvious that he could no doubt be Coach of the Year.”