Armchair Analyst: For Fire, it's Nikolic then what? | #MLSIsBack in 24 Days

Nemanja Nikolic did the damn thing last year, and he did it not by being faster or more skillful than the other guys. He did it by being smarter.

With all due respect to the baseball-related axiom, the hardest thing to do in sports is to score a goal in soccer. And it's especially hard to do so on the regular because you are always lining up against 11 other professional athletes, many of whom have "stop the opponent's primary goalscorer by any means necessary" in their job description. These are guys who literally make their living by ruining you day.

Nobody in MLS could figure out how to stop Nikolic in 2017, though. And the Fire rode his goalscoring all the way up to third place in the Supporters' Shield standings and back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. It was, in a lot of ways, a magical year.

But there was a gray lining to that silver cloud. Namely: When David Accam stopped scoring, Chicago stopped winning. And David doesn't live here anymore.

Accam had 10g/8a through the season's first 19 games as Chicago went 11-3-5. In the season's final 15, the winger – shipped to Philly in the offseason – had 4g/0a as the Fire limped home at 5-8-2. Attack-wise, once Accam went cold there was no second heat for the Fire.

That was especially dangerous for a team whose chance creation was, out of necessity, done by committee. There was no defense-splitting through-ball artist to tee Nikolic up, or to conjure chances out of thin air. The wingers had to be locked in and relentless to draw defenders out of the center and into the channels, or else everything could be focused on stopping Nikolic.

Such is the challenge facing this team in 2018. "Can Nikolic replicate his goalscoring feat?" is obviously linked to "Can the Fire do better at generating chances out of central midfield?", but also to "Can Chicago find a winger to at least approximate the threat Accam presented through the first two-thirds of last season?"

The immediate hope is that Serbian international Aleksandar Katai will answer that in the affirmative:

As with Accam, Katai is a goalscoring winger in his prime (27 years old). As with Accam, there are zero questions about his skill or overall talent. As with Accam, there are some questions about his defensive workrate and ability to stay healthy. We shall see.

Regardless, this seems a good bit of business from Chicago's front office, who appear to have gotten Katai as a TAM signing. That means they've kept the powder dry on their third DP slot (Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger are the other two) while potentially filling their biggest need. Katai very much looks the part of a high-level Accam replacement.

None of this means that Nikolic will be able to recapture last year's magic, of course. The list of MLS players who've scored 20 or more goals in a season twice is pretty short: David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips. The odds say Nikolic won't be joining them.

But he's got a better chance than he did at the start of the week. The man knows how to find a tap-in – he knows how to take the hardest thing to do in sports and make it look remarkably easy. With Katai providing a wing threat to pull defenders out of the gaps, Nikolic should get his fair share of looks and a fair shot at driving the Fire even higher in the standings.

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