With the Chicago Fire struggling to find consistency this year, head coach Veljko Paunovic has had to come up with ways to get his team on track. This week, that meant making two major changes.
Both starting forward Nemanja Nikolic and goalkeeper David Ousted began Saturday's 1-1 draw against NYCFC at SeatGeek Stadium on the bench. Coming in, both veterans had started all of their previous appearances this season, 12 for Nikolic, who missed the season opener, and 13 for Ousted, who joined the club in the offseason.
But in Ousted's case, it looked like a succession plan might be on the horizon, with German-based American goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm a late signing at the end of the MLS Primary Transfer window earlier this month. Kronholm made his MLS debut against NYCFC, as he played the full 90 and made one save in the result.
Paunovic admitted Kronholm appears to be the No. 1 moving forward for Chicago.
“I think we’ve said in the past that Kronholm was our long-term target and we always thought that he is going to improve our style and we expect that he’s going to do better even though today he just showed glimpses of his capability of delivering very good balls in the buildup," Paunovic told reporters after the game. "I think he helped the team a lot. To give you a short answer: It’s a technical decision”
He reinforced his new goalkeeper's status by confirming Kronholm will start on Wednesday as well, at D.C. United (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; DAZN in Canada).
As for Nikolic, the 2017 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner, he has five goals on the season, so he's scored, but he's missed quite a few big chances in recent weeks, and Paunovic said bringing in the Hungarian international off the bench was a mix of normal squad rotation and having a different look against NYCFC.
“It’s a technical decision," Paunovic explained. "I think we needed to play this way. And that’s all. Nikolic is an important player for our team. He has been in the past and will be in the future. Rotations will happen as the season starts to become very busy and we have now coming very important games next week. So we’re looking toward everyone being engaged and everyone having the opportunity to think that they can play and then obviously when they have their opportunity they have to be at their best. So nobody can relax and we want everyone to be engaged.”
The Fire's other main striker, CJ Sapong, started on Saturday and scored Chicago's goal, his fifth of the season to join Nikolic atop the scoring chart for the club. Paunovic was circumspect when asked the differences the two forwards bring to the team.
“Definitely both can score goals. Both can help the team. I’ll keep the differences privately so I’m not going to give our opponents tips who and why and when,” he said.