It seems wherever Nemanja Nikolic has played soccer, he's scored goals.
European players have been part of MLS since its inception. The Fire famously featured the "Eastern Bloc," the name given to Polish players Peter Nowak, Roman Kosecki and Jerzy Podbrozny and Czech player Lubos Kublic, in their successful, debut 1998 season — and when Nikolic caught the Fire front office's attention, he did so while scoring 41 goals in 56 matches for powerhouse Polish squad Legia Warsaw.
But Nikolic's story starts in a part of the world where top soccer players are more likely to gravitate to Italy's Serie A and the German Bundesliga. He was born in Senta, in what was then Yugoslavia, but is now located in the northern reaches of Serbia, near its borders with Hungary and Romania.
Nemanja Nikolic's MLS Flight Path
Croatia's remarkable run to the 2018 World Cup final – as well as Serbia's valiant effort in a challenging group where Brazil and Switzerland ultimately advanced — put a new spotlight on the former Yugoslavia, created in 1918, and broken up in the early 1990s into what is now a group of seven separate nations.
Nikolic played for the youth team in his hometown, but when he turned 18, opportunity beckoned in neighboring Hungary. He started his pro career there with a series of club teams, starting in 2006 with Barcsi SC.
"It was difficult when I arrived in the country," he said of his initial journey to Hungary. "I needed to show myself and show that I deserved respect." He landed with Barcsi on trial, and after scoring two goals in his first match, he stayed there for a year despite battling some back injuries.
He was able to move to another second-division club, placed himself into Golden Boot races as the division's top scorer, and then went to Kaposvári Rákóczi FC, a first-division team he praises for letting young players get minutes and prove themselves. In 2010, after scoring 30 goals in 49 games for Kaposvár, he landed at Videoton (now MOL Vidi FC), one of the top clubs in Hungary, based in Székesfehérvár, which he calls his "second home."
"They gave me opportunities to fight for trophies," he recalled. "There was the feeling there every single week that we would win the game and win titles." While there, his team won two league championships, he won three Golden Boot trophies, and he got to experience the Europa League. Also, in 2013, he made his first national team appearance for Hungary — which he attributes to the profile he was able to build at Videoton.
He proclaims, "Hungary is my home" — his wife is from there, his children were born there, and his mother, though born in Serbia, is of Hungarian heritage, and he and his brothers grew up speaking both Serbian and Hungarian at home. In 2011, he officially became a Hungarian citizen.
Nikolic had an incredible 5 1/2 seasons at Videoton, scoring 123 goals in 215 appearances. In his final season with the club, he was scoring at close to a goal a game clip — the second-best goals-per-game ratio for any season he's had, with 24 goals in 29 appearances.
But due to a contract dispute at the end of the season — Nikolic wanted to make a long-term commitment to Videoton, whereas the club only wanted a one-year deal — he sought a new opportunity in Poland.
Legia Warsaw, as Nikolic puts it, is a "big club, with big tradition, lots of fans, one of the best in the world," with a full crowd for league matches, cup matches, and the European competitions the team often found itself in. Because Legia Warsaw is perennially at the top of the Ekstraklasa, the top-tier Polish league, moving there gave Nikolic the opportunity to sample Champions League play for the first time in his life.
When Nikolic signed for Legia Warsaw in 2015, the team had finished second in the league — good for a Europa League spot, but not quite where they wanted to be. "They wanted to bring trophies back to Warsaw, they brought in some players to help them do that, and one of those players was me."
Their eventual goal was to get past the Champions League qualifier rounds and into the 32-team group stages. The first step was to win the league in the 2015-16 season, which they accomplished, and then they got over the qualifier hurdles for the first time in more than two decades, thanks in large part to Nikolic scoring five goals in the six qualifying matches. That landed them in a challenging group with eventual champions Real Madrid, as well as an in-form Borussia Dortmund and a capable Sporting Lisbon team.
Nikolic got on the scoreboard in one of the tournament's more absurd tallies, an 8-4 loss to Borussia Dortmund; the team would also lose 6-0 to Dortmund at home and 5-1 to Real Madrid in the Bernabéu, though they'd also draw 3-3 to Real at home and notch a win against the Portuguese powers in their final match. He recalled of the experience, "It's big. It's huge. You're playing against the best teams in the world. I got to score against Dortmund. That was a special experience for me, and I'll never forget that."
Though the team did finish third in their group, allowing them to advance to the Europa League competition in progress, Nikolic would not be part of that experience — as fortune would have him preparing for a whole new experience a continent away.
"I have really good memories from Poland," he said. "My first year there, we won the league and the Polish Cup. It was really important, after more than 20 years of being in Champions League group stage, to get back there, and we did that. Even though it was just a year and a half, it was a wonderful experience there." In that time, Nikolic added to his productive reputation, with 55 goals and 11 assists in 86 contests.
Though English and Chinese teams were courting him, the Fire provided him an intriguing opportunity. Nikolic had concerns about moving his family, who were settling in Poland, though he also noted that MLS afforded him the opportunity to do special things.
One person who helped tip the balance toward Nikolic coming to America was Arturo Alvarez. A Houston native who had been Nikolic's unlikely teammate at Videoton, Alvarez reunited with him in Chicago before getting a chance to return to his hometown in time for the 2018 season.
Ultimately, though, it was Fire coach Veljko Paunovic who recruited Nikolic and convinced him to make the journey to Chicago. "He explained to me how it would be difficult, and different than Europe," Nikolic said. "But they let me know that they believed in me, which was very important. They wanted to bring and keep players who were hungry for success."
As with Legia Warsaw, Nikolic was seen as a player who could help a team with aspirations to achieve greater heights. Though it was in a league that was new to him, in a place that was truly foreign, he welcomed the opportunity. "We decided together as a family and decided, ‘Why not?'" he recalled. "I was 29, it was time for us to have a new adventure."
Upon his signing, Paunovic praised Nikolic as a leader as well as a goal-scorer, saying, "He's capable of pushing himself very, very far, but also he's capable of influencing others to do the same."
He also declared that Nikolic wanted to compete against the best scorers in the league — which Nikolic made happen with a torrid start out of the gate, surprising even those following MLS closely. He made enough of an impression to win a spot on the All-Star Team, adding to a storybook season by getting to play in front of fans in his new city against Real Madrid. He then surged late in the season, with eight goals in seven contests to help seal the Golden Boot victory and secure the Fire's first post-season berth since 2012.
"I'm really glad I decided to come here," he reflected. "It's a high-quality league. A lot of good players are coming here. It's improving year by year, and I came into a fantastic organization."
Of his first-year Golden Boot, he said, "I think a lot of people are surprised that I won it, but it's important to have confidence in yourself. I have confidence in myself. I know what I can do for a team. Coming from Europe, it's not easy to adapt to the system and this life, but I came two months before the season started to prepare." He said that going to Florida for training camp upon arriving, getting to know his teammates better, was instrumental.
And though Chicago is far from the European cities he's known — his central European birthplace, the Hungarian city that helped him develop into a world-class player, and the Polish capital where he captured Champions League-level attention — its diversity has made him feel more at home.
"The life in Chicago is really nice," he observed. "There are a lot of Polish, Serbian, and Hungarian people living here. It's great to see a lot of them coming out and supporting our club. Some of them already knew about me when I came here."
Though making those connections has been important, Nikolic notes that he was first and foremost focused on his family's adjustment to life in the States. "The most important thing coming out here was finding a good school for my kids, which we were able to immediately find. There's a lot for my kids here, there's so much promise here, we're enjoying it here, and we're really, really happy."
And thanks in large part to Nikolic continuing his goal-scoring ways in Chicago, Fire fans are happy to have him in their city as well.