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's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer


Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.

Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando


Fire reportedly trade prized homegrown prospect Cam Lindley to Orlando

For the past two offseasons, Cam Lindley’s name has popped up as a potential key addition for the Fire.

The North Carolina sophomore has been one of the top midfielders in college soccer the past two seasons and has established himself as a good MLS prospect. The Fire held his homegrown rights after he traveled from Indianapolis to play with the Fire’s academy in high school, even helping the U-18 team win the Development Academy national title in 2015.

The Fire failed to sign him last offseason, with Lindley electing to return to college. When the college season ended and negotiations started up again this winter, Lindley turned down the Fire’s homegrown offer. Initially, it was expected that meant he was returning to school, but now Paul Tenorio has reported that the Fire traded Lindley’s homegrown rights to Orlando.

In Tenorio’s reported deal, which he said was still being finalized, the Fire receive right back Rafael Ramos and allocation money from the Lions. The move means Orlando gets the exclusive rights within MLS to negotiate with Lindley and if he signs he will still count as a homegrown for Orlando.

Lindley did not train at all with the Fire in the past year, instead electing to stay in North Carolina when he played in the PDL (a summer league for college players). In 2016, Lindley played with the Fire’s PDL team. The Fire’s three other best homegrown prospects who played in college this past season, Grant Lillard, Andrew Gutman and Mauricio Pineda, all spent some time in training with the Fire in 2017. Pineda stayed after practice multiple times with coach Veljko Paunovic in one-on-one drills. Lillard, the only senior of the four, signed his homegrown deal with the Fire earlier this week.

On the one hand, the Fire get a player in Ramos, who is 23 years old and could help provide depth at both right back and left back. The Portuguese player made 39 MLS appearances in three years with Orlando, including 24 starts in 2015, but injuries contributed to a lack of playing time last season when

Ramos played 55 MLS minutes. A hamstring injury limited him in 2016 and again in the 2017 preseason when he was expected to be the starter at right back. Once he returned, Scott Sutter had established himself at the position.

Ramos vented his frustration at a lack of playing time in an Orlando Sentinel story in October.

On the other hand, Lindley is a player who was racking up the accolades at UNC. As a freshman he tallied seven assists and was named national Freshman of the Year by Top Drawer Soccer and a first team All-ACC pick. This season, he had seven goals and 13 assists and was a first team All-American by United Soccer Coaches, Top Drawer Soccer and College Soccer News in addition to being named ACC Midfielder of the Year. The Tar Heels made it to the College Cup semifinals both years.

The midfielder could be good enough to receive interest from European teams, which could make it good business for the Fire to get something from within MLS for him instead of letting him go for free.

If the trade materializes, it will be a failure on the Fire’s part to convince a talented young player who spent time in the team’s academy to sign, but also a success in getting something of value in return for a player who may not want to sign with the team.