BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Nemanja Nikolic did his best to savor the moment of his first hat trick in MLS, the applause of the Chicago Fire fans, and the three-goal cushion he has over his nearest Golden Boot rivals with just one regular-season game remaining.
However, while the Golden Boot was the talk in the locker room, the Hungarian striker refused to focus on the individual award that is all but certainly on its way to him in his debut season in MLS. Instead, after his hat trick lifted Chicago to a 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union, he insisted the focus should be on beating the Houston Dynamo in next Sunday's finale as they attempt to leapfrog New York City FC into the coveted second spot in the crowded East.
“I think that it will be really important to win against Houston, if it needs to be 1-0, OK, just to win there and try to achieve that second place,” he said. “It will be really good if we can rest a little bit more than the other opponents and, of course, like always, I will try to score a goal or goals. And we will see next week how many goals [I finish with] in this regular season.”
Nikolic — who lifted the Golden Boot in Hungary (three times) and Poland before joining the Fire — upped his total to 24 goals on the year, putting him four clear of NYCFC's David Villa and three ahead of the Portland Timbers’ Diego Valeri. He's also three shy of MLS regular-season record of 27 goals, which is held jointly by Roy Lassiter (1996 for the Tampa Bay Mutiny), Chris Wondolowski (2012 for the San Jose Earthquakes) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2014 for the New York Red Bulls).
“Yeah, three goals, it’s too much, but it’s also close,” the very deliberate Nikolic said when asked if he could join that illustrious trio.
While the humble and hard-working Nikolic — who had already become the first Fire player to score 20 goals in a season — was quick to deflect attention from his own personal success, his teammates were less shy about hailing his achievements.
“We want him to win it,” Arturo Alvarez said. “You could tell that David Accam got the PK today and he gave the ball to Niko and it’s always good when everybody is rooting for one of your teammates to win the Golden Boot. Niko’s a goalscorer. I played with him in Videoton [from 2013 to 2015], I know what he’s capable of doing and what can I tell you? He’s hungry for goals and he wants them all, so it will be great for him and for us for him to win the Golden Boot.”
Despite Nikolic's third-minute opener, things didn’t look so good for the Fire as the hosts trailed the Union 2-1 after a Johan Kappelhof own goal and an Alejandro Bedoya strike. However, Nikolic converted a 64th-minute penalty and won the match for the Fire with a superb first-time finish from 16 yards off a Brandon Vincent cross, before exiting the match to huge cheers.
“It would be an unbelievable accomplishment for him and he deserves every bit of it,” Vincent said. “He’s always been clinical with the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have even more goals honestly, so he’s a striker and deserves that, for sure.”
Accam — who was in contention for the Golden Boot himself earlier in the year — echoed Vincent’s sentiments, saying that everyone is trying “to help” Nikolic top the league’s scoring charts. And even if he’s more focused on the team's accomplishments, you can be sure Nikolic wants it too.
“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic added. “This is our job, we need to do this every week and the season is really long. You will always have up-and-down situations and the important thing is how you will believe in these kind of things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.
“I have the possibility to win the Golden Boot and the team has the possibility to achieve second place, which is what we want. Everything is open, so we will see next week.”