Despite scoring drought, Nemanja Nikolic 'sure' he will regain scoring touch

Despite scoring drought, Nemanja Nikolic 'sure' he will regain scoring touch

Forwards naturally go through goal droughts, but how the player comes out of it is the key.

Nemanja Nikolic took Major League Soccer by storm with 16 goals in his first 18 games with the Fire. He was leading the league in goals scored and the league website was hyping his pace to beat the all-time record for goals in a season.

Things have changed. Nikolic hasn’t scored in the past eight games.

“Of course it’s not good when a striker have bad moments in his career, but it’s also our life,” Nikolic said after practice on Tuesday. “We need to know how to live in this, we need to know how to handle this kind of pressure. In the beginning everything was great, I scored a lot of goals. Now I have some bad momentum, but I don’t focus on these kind of things. I just think how to finish these kinds of situations and I am sure that I will score the goals like in the beginning of the season.”

Part of the reason for Nikolic’s scoring slump is a lack of scoring chances. He had four shots in the 2-1 loss to Minnesota on Saturday, but had just five in the previous four games combined.

Nikolic’s struggles have also coincided with the Fire’s. The team has a 1-6-1 record in the eight games Nikolic has failed to score in.

“For sure the team needs my goals,” Nikolic said. “Everybody has responsibility in this, but the strikers are always on the top end. Their job is to score goals and help the team to come out from this kind of situation. I will take responsibility on me and I will help the team I hope with my goals to come out from this.”

As teams have adapted to the Fire’s attack, Nikolic has become a priority for opposing defenses. On top of that, defenses have focused on defending through the middle while allowing the Fire to attack via the wings.

At 5-foot-11, Nikolic isn’t known for his aerial ability, but more and more of the Fire’s attacks are coming from wide areas and ending in crosses into the box. Nikolic’s hot streak came when the Fire were attacking from all angles. As much as Nikolic’s lack of goals have been a cause for the Fire's struggles, his drought is also a symptom of the Fire’s issues in build-up play.

Coach Veljko Paunovic is keeping the faith in Nikolic to get back on track.

“He’s practicing and working on that,” Paunovic said. "That’s the only thing you can do. You can get back to the fundamentals, the simple things, get sharp, focused and getting back to the winning track needs work and belief so I think that’s what he’s doing now and everyone else. We’ll fix it.”

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.