Urgency rising as Chicago Fire look to Nikolic as Katai adapts to MLS

Aleksandar Katai, Brandon Vincent, Nemanja Nikolic - Chicago Fire

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – While goals have been hard come by for the Chicago Fire in 2018, reigning MLS Golden Boot holderNemanja Nikolic has not been shirking his responsibility.

The Fire are currently tied for seventh-lowest scoring team in MLS, but the Hungarian international has embraced his position as chief goalscorer with an impressive four goals in five games, despite the Men in Red’s sluggish start to the season which sees them third from bottom in the Supporters’ Shield standings with a 1-3-1 record (4 points).

That tally is all the more impressive given the fact that only three of his teammates have contributed one goal each, to take the Fire’s overall total to seven goals. Over the winter the Fire traded winger David Accam to the Philadelphia Union, a player whose 14 goals and eight assists last year look increasingly hard to replace with the players currently available to head coach Veljko Paunovic.

“Last year I scored goals and we also had David, who scored a lot of goals and made a lot of assists,” Nikolic told MLSsoccer.com. “Of course, it’s always better if you have a couple of players who are scoring [rather] than just one player, but the pressure is on me. I know that everybody here expects goals from me, the supporters, my teammates, the coaching staff, and it’s OK.

“They bring me because of this and I will try to do my best. With these four goals I am [both] satisfied and not, but I will keep working to give my best for the team. And the good thing is that my teammates know me much better than last year, they believe in me and what is good for me.”

Paunovic has refused to push the panic button just five games in, and remains convinced that his team is showing signs of improvement, especially given their impressive showing in the second half against the LA Galaxy last time out.

“Everyone expects that everyone can do his job well and he has showed that and proved that in the past,” Paunovic said of Nikolic. “Nobody is putting any pressure on Niko or any other player in terms of whatever the role it is, it’s just do your best and that’s what we are doing.

“I don’t think we should actually point at Niko at this point, it’s all of us have to do a better job, Niko included, but not only on the side of scoring goals. I think he is proven, he is the guy that nobody’s going to discuss his capacity, but we all have to do our job better.”

One man whose production has dipped below expectation is Serbian midfielder Aleksandar Katai, who impressed with a goal on his debut in the 4-3 opening-day home defeat to Sporting Kansas City.

However, he has fallen from favor somewhat since, being pulled at halftime in the 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers and seeing no minutes in the 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC, before he reasserted his merits for a starting role with an energetic 29-minute cameo off the bench in the 1-0 loss to LA.

Urgency rising as Chicago Fire look to Nikolic as Katai adapts to MLS - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/styles/image_landscape/s3/images/Katai,-Nikolic,-Fire.jpg

Aleksandar Katai, Brandon Vincent, Nemanja Nikolic | USA Today Sports Images

“Yeah, definitely we want to build his momentum, where we believe his qualities can help the team a lot,” Paunovic said of his compatriot. “Right now, he still has to get used to the pace. I think he got better in the last game, I think he had a good performance coming off the bench, but he also needs to learn the style of officiating, the other teams and we’re working towards that.

“Fitness-wise, he is very fast, especially with the ball, and I think we can benefit from that,” Paunovic added of Katai. “But we have to be careful in bringing him to the level where it doesn’t hurt his confidence or the confidence of the team in him, and that’s what we are doing right now.”

Nikolic is no stranger to adjusting to life in a new league and new country, and he believes Katai, currently on loan from La Liga side Deportivo Alaves, still has plenty to offer his new team.

“Katai is a great player, he has great skills and he’s a player who can help us, for sure,” Nikolic said. “He needs to adapt, I know the best how difficult it is when you come here from Europe and immediately need to start to play. Everybody in the club believes in him, we know that he is a good player and he will help us.

“Of course, we can not say we have time to give him, we don’t have time. But still we will help him in everything that he needs to show his quality and ability. I am sure that he will be an important part of this team.”