BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Chicago Fire fans have endured a litany of underperforming, misfiring center forwards since the club’s last trophy in 2006. But offseason signing Nemanja Nikolic has given them renewed grounds for optimism with an impressive return of four goals in six games.
Alongside the understandable media and fan attention directed at fellow Designated Player Bastian Schweinsteiger, the former Legia Warsaw striker has quietly gone about his business. In a frequently changing attack, he's propelled himself near the top of the league's scoring charts, putting himself in the company of such prolific performers as David Villa, Justin Meram, and Cyle Larin.
Although it's still early, the Hungarian international is on pace to break the 20-goal mark for the first time in the club’s 20-year history. He's also certainly a good bet to eclipse the 10 and nine regular-season goals that David Accam scored to lead the Fire the past two seasons.
Most recently, Nikolic helped himself to a brace Saturday as the Fire rolled to an emphatic 3-0 home victory over the 10-man New England Revolution. The 29-year-old paid tribute to the likes of Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Luis Solignac, and Accam when talking about his Man-of-the-Match performance, which also saw him named to the MLS Team of the Week for the first time.
"The most important thing is that the team plays good,” Nikolic told reporters as the Fire (3-1-2) moved into third place in the Eastern Conference. “Game by game, we're getting better and better. We have an identity now; everybody so badly wants to play. The players behind me are in good form, so for me it's also easier. They gave me a great ball today and I scored two goals, but the most important thing is that in these three games that we have played at home, we achieved seven points. Now we have a very three difficult games away, so we need to prepare for this."
Nikolic received a hero’s welcome at O’Hare Airport upon his arrival in Chicago back in January. He's survived initial concerns about his ability to fit in with head coach Veljko Paunovic's system, as well as potential struggles with the frigid Midwest weather. He's also weathered criticism after he got just one goal through his first four starts. Now, the Serbian native has found his feet and discovered the form that made him a target for several European clubs, including Hull City.
"Of course, I needed to adjust,” he admitted. “I’ve been here for just three months; it's my sixth game here in MLS. I watch a lot of games, I try to get a lot of information, to see all of our opponents."
Having gained seven points from a possible nine during their recent three-game homestand, the Fire now hit the road for a three-game stretch that will take them to Toronto, New York, and LA. And although Nikolic is a relative newcomer, he has quickly learned all about the difficulty of getting points on the road, and how important it will be to take something back to Chicago for their next home match on May 13, when they host Seattle.
“Before this game, we don't speak about this small trip, but for us it was very important [Saturday] to win,” he said ahead of Friday’s game in Toronto (7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE). “We need to go step by step and to prepare game by game. It will be very difficult, but I think we are in a good mood and good shape.”