The Fire’s Nikolic showed up fresh from setting a new single-season club record with his 20th goal of the year at San Jose on Wednesday. Meanwhile New York City FC’s Villa also came up big for his respective side, as both illuminated a match that often frustrated, despite its status as a proverbial six-pointer with playoff seedings still up for grabs.
Nikolic opened the scoring when he capitalized on the high pressure of teammate Matt Polster on New York City's Maxi Moralez. The latter inexplicably coughed up the ball on the six-yard line to give poacher-supreme Nikolic the simple task of slotting the ball past former Fire No. 1 Sean Johnson in the 20th minute. That strike took him above fellow Golden Boot contender Diego Valeri of the Portland Timbers, and propelled Nikolic to the top of the standings with 21 goals.
However, the dangerous Villa notched his 20th of another productive season with a classy run-and-finish two minutes before the break, finding space between the Fire’s center backs before rounding Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson for the equalizer. Moralez made amends for his earlier lapse by providing the assist with an astute pass into the Spaniard’s chest on the edge of the area.
But while goals are the main reason both men are on their teams, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic commended Hungarian international Nikolic on not just his goals, but also the significant work rate he offers the team, defending from the top and always providing an outlet for his teammates.
“With goal-scorers, it’s very important to score goals, but you just have to see how he’s working for the team and that also makes me happy,” Paunovic said. “When you have both things on the same page, that’s what you expect; that’s the performance you need and the team needs."
For his part, NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira said Villa's chances of winning the Golden Boot are reliant on the rest of the players performing at a good level.
“I think the Golden Boot race, he will win it when the team is doing well,” Vieira said. “But every single player around is really important. Look at the ball that Maxi gave to him. When the team is playing well, you’re going to have more chances to win games, and when we have more chances of winning games that means we have more chances of scoring goals.
"And David is not so bad at scoring goals. The team has to perform and then the individual quality of the players will shine.”