Nemanja Nikolic's goals have Chicago Fire not just surviving, but believing

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Everything is going right for Nemanja Nikolic right now: scoring goals, chasing records, and winning games.

Nikolic scored both goals in the 10-man Chicago Fire’s 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night, meaning he’s now scored in four consecutive games and taken sole possession of second place on the club’s all-time scoring list with 50 regular season goals. Those accomplishments have him in the company of club legends: Brian McBride, the only Fire player to ever score in five consecutive games, and Ante Razov, who tops the all-time club scoring chart with 76.

Nikolic already holds the club records for most goals in a single season, 24 in his Golden Boot-winning campaign of 2017, and goals per game, .60, and his coach is confident that the gap between Nikolic and Razov isn’t insurmountable.

“He has to get to number one,” said Veljko Paunovic. “I believe that he will achieve it. I strongly believe in everyone in that locker room.”

Paunovic’s professed belief in his players has been constant, even when wins and Nikolic goals were few and far between. In a season that included a stretch where Nikolic scored just three goals over 16 games, his frustrations have often mirrored his team. However, he never doubted things would turn around.

“A lot of times, when I didn’t score in the beginning of the season, I have opportunities almost every game,” he said. “In our life, strikers know…sometimes you have periods where everything goes in, sometimes you have periods where you feel like nothing wants to go [in].”

The recent run has evoked memories of 2017, when the Fire went 13-1-3 in games where Nikolic scored. They’ve won three of the four games in this streak, the exception a match at Portland where they played a man down for 60 minutes, and the belief in both the team and its striker have evoked that memorable season.

“If you don’t believe in yourself you cannot expect it from coach, from teammates, from supporters,” Nikolic said. “I knew that I would start again to score goals, it’s just a question of time…I feel that everybody here believes in me.”

Without his goals, the Fire likely wouldn’t still be in the race for the Eastern Conference playoffs. While the entire squad has raised its level in recent games, everyone is keenly aware of just how vital Nikolic’s success is to the broader success of the team.

“He’s starting to catch fire again and that’s what you need out of a player like that,” said midfielder Brandt Bronico. “He’s a really good finisher and he’s getting the job done.”

For Nikolic, the goals are simply a means to an end, to what he and his teammates are working to achieve. The scoring streak and potential records are secondary.

“I just need to work hard and appreciate ever single goal, every single opportunity that I have,” he said. “My goal in the last six games is to help my team with goals, good games, assists and to achieve the playoffs.”