Thomas Juel-Nielsen reflects on a tough 2018 season

After a “what if” season in Orange County that started promising but ended on the bench injured, Thomas Juel-Nielsen is ready for his next challenge, wherever that might take him.

Thomas Juel-Nielsen arrived quietly in Orange County in March 2018. Typical of most USL players, there was little, if any, fanfare. It was bright, sunny, and warm, a distinct departure from the Denmark winter that he had left. The quiet, unassuming first days in the US marked a fresh start for the experienced center back, coming almost six months after a brief and disappointing spell in Israel’s top flight. The USL was touted as a stepping stone, an opportunity for him to earn a MLS contract at the year’s end.

It seemed as if it was going to be a good turnaround from an underwhelming 2017. Juel-Nielsen had left Scandinavia in the summer feeling “very proud” of his career and success. After a spring that found him playing sport spells in both Sweden and in Denmark, an offer came in the summer. It was a “new challenge with one of the biggest clubs” in Israel, a challenge and an offer that he “couldn’t resist.” Accepting would make him the first Dane to ever play in the Israeli Premier League. Still, it proved “a very hard decision” to make, leaving an offer from AGF in favor of going abroad.

His time in Israel proved to be similarly difficult. He struggled to adapt to both the playing style of Maccabi Netanya and the sporting culture in Israel. Juel-Nielsen expressed his worries within the club, an action he now regrets. With the club limited to just six foreign roster spots, his position was shaky despite reportedly being the club’s highest earner. It was a frustrating and disappointing situation, with Netanya seemingly unwilling to work towards an improvement in the situation. Just a few weeks after signing, Juel-Nielsen and the club parted ways.

It was nearly six months before he would sign for Orange County, and his appetite to play was “bigger than ever.” The club offered him a chance to not only continue his career, but also get a chance at joining the MLS. Juel-Nielsen wasn’t immediately sold on the opportunity, understandably skeptical about the still unproven quality of the USL. But Orange County and Juel-Nielsen eventually worked out a deal, with the California sunshine helping to sweeten the deal. Fellow Dane Thomas Enevoldsen would also sign, another experienced player hoping to use Orange County as a stepping stone to the MLS. The two would get along, sharing similar backgrounds, attitudes, and desires. But, they would ultimately have drastically different seasons.

Little was known of Juel-Nielsen at the beginning of the season, but his performances were enough to excite fans. Lean, smart, and good with his feet, it was evident that he was the perfect compliment to fellow center back Walker Hume. Juel-Nielsen found the USL to be “a bit chaotic,” likely due to the inconsistency and gulf of talent between teams. Nonetheless, he enjoyed and preferred the “freedom to express [himself]” in Orange County’s possession-based style. He fit in well to the system, capable of getting forward if given the space. He was equally adept at playing a short pass forward as he was at pinging a cross out to the flanks. Fans were excited, and Juel-Nielsen seemed poised to be a quality USL center back, even after six months without having played a match.

Unfortunately, the following months were not as exciting, and Juel-Nielsen fell under the radar. The arrival of Columbus Crew loanee Alex Crognale first offered competition for Juel-Nielsen and depth for the team, but the young American became the first-choice center back despite his inexperience. As a result, Juel-Nielsen was relegated to a spot on the bench, then occasionally left out of match day squads altogether. Typical of USL clubs, there was never a reason publicly given for Juel-Nielsen’s sudden absences. Crognale’s early performances quickly stole the focus of the fans and the MLS, with the center back making a few appearances with his parent club over the summer. These recalls afforded Juel-Nielsen some well-deserved playing time, but each spell was brief. Following Crognale’s final return from Columbus, Juel-Nielsen then only made one appearance: alongside Walker Hume in Fresno, playing well and earning a clean sheet.

Such a limited and disappointing season was not due to a lack of effort. It was the result of miscommunications and an undiagnosed injury. The injury and associated pain came early: “only a few games in.” Club staff thought it was simple inflammation of the patellar tendon, capable of being played on if managed properly. So Juel-Nielsen played, and despite his injury, he played well. Although limited to playing just half of the season, his stats were comparable to some of the USL’s best defenders. But the grueling schedule of the USL meant that proper rest and recovery were unlikely. His chances of making it to the MLS dwindled as the season wore on, featuring just three times after the end of July.

After a scan in September, Juel-Nielsen was officially diagnosed with a torn patellar tendon. It will likely be never known what the exact reason for the injury was. It’s possible it was the hard and dry fields throughout Orange County and the USL. It’s possible it was the taxing match schedule coupled with a similar training schedule. Juel-Nielsen isn’t sure but does suspect that such a demanding workload following time off is likely the culprit. Reflecting, he realizes that his situation “should have been managed differently” by all parties involved.

Juel-Nielsen admits that the pressure of needing to play while injured was extremely taxing. He does not look back on his season favorably, understandably frustrated with not making the impact he knows he was capable of making. Despite generally performing well, he never logged enough minutes to warrant a serious look from MLS teams. But he refuses to blame the injury for his underwhelming season.

Instead, Juel-Nielsen looks at 2018 and his time with Orange County as a time of personal growth. He mentions his intense desire for self-improvement and mental strength as keys to maintaining his professionalism through his injury. While things quite obviously did not go to plan for Juel-Nielsen on the pitch, he remains grateful to Orange County, having grown as a person in his time with the club. This comes despite being unable to identify with the success on the pitch while injured.

It’s the same attitude that guided his recovery once he returned home. Having received a second platelet injection just before returning to Denmark, Juel-Nielsen was able to fully rehab his knee and enjoy some time at home with his family during the festive period. Now into the January transfer window, he says he is now pain-free and ready to go. He is confident that he will find a new team and a new journey, whether “in Scandinavia or abroad.”

Photo credit: Lisa Rosales/Orange County SC