Fire

Nemanja Nikolic takes MLS scoring lead in Fire win

Nemanja Nikolic takes MLS scoring lead in Fire win

After a bit of a slow start in his first couple matches, Nemanja Nikolic is suddenly one of the hottest strikers in Major League Soccer.

Nikolic scored twice to help the Chicago Fire to a comfortable 3-0 win against the floundering Colorado Rapids on Wednesday at Toyota Park.

Nikolic reached double figure goals in 11 matches. He became the fastest Fire player to 10 goals, taking a record from 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee. When asked if he was surprised by his own early success, Nikolic bluntly said no.

“I think that the most important thing is the team plays really good," Nikolic said. "I don’t do anything special. I think my teammates make a fantastic job for me. I am all the time in the right place and also like today I don’t have a really difficult job to finish the action. Thanks to my teammates I adapt really good and fast."

Brandon Vincent delivered a cross from the left that Nikolic headed into the net in the 15th minute. That marked Nikolic’s fourth straight game with a goal.

With that goal, Nikolic took sole possession of the league lead in goals. He moved past Houston’s Erick Torres, who also had eight entering the night and did not score in the Dynamo’s 2-0 loss at Philadelphia on Wednesday.

"I don’t think about this," Nikolic said of leading the league in goals. "The season is so long so we have a lot of games more. Of course every striker wants to score every game and to be top scorer in the end of the season, but I think it’s too early to speak about this."

The Fire (5-3-3, 18 points) dominated the first half with the wind at their backs on a windy night in Bridgeview. Colorado (2-7-1, 7 points) was in a shell most of the half, hoping to weather the storm before having the wind with them in the second half.

Things did not get better after halftime for the Rapids, which have the lowest point total in the league.

The Fire added a second goal with David Accam finishing off a sequence of quick passes involving Matt Polster, making his first start of the season at right back. Polster initially set up Michael de Leeuw, who appeared to have a shot at an open goal but couldn't reach it. Accam was there to finish it.

Nikolic’s second goal came in the 74th minute with de Leeuw doing the heavy lifting on the play. He flicked the ball around a defender to get free on the right wing and played a perfectly angled ball at the back post where a sliding Nikolic scored.

"My game and my style, I need the players behind me to give me really good balls," Nikolic said. "Like today, Brandon gave me a fantastic ball for the first goal, Michael gave me for the second."

Coach Veljko Paunovic said they knew what they were getting when they signed Nikolic this offseason. Nikolic led the Hungarian League in goals each of his last two seasons there before leading the Polish Ekstraklasa in goals his first season with Legia Warsaw.

“I think he has that natural hunger for scoring goals," Paunovic said. "In his career he has scored so many goals so right now we have him in his prime. That’s important for us. Strikers they live for streaks like this, scoring goals, scoring goals, scoring goals and sometimes when they don’t score goals obviously they are nervous. We know that, we have to manage with that and we always support our guys.”

Nikolic's presence has also opened things up for players like Accam, who has five goals and four assists this season.

“He’s a great finisher and he’s got really good movement," Accam said of Nikolic. "Every time I get the ball I try to look at him and see where he is because I know if I get the ball to him he’s going to score. Also when he moves, he takes away defenders for me."

The Fire, which played in front of an announced crowd of 11,244 after selling out Saturday’s win against Seattle, play again in three days at D.C. United.

Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas

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AP

Fire rumored to be connected to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas

They don’t call it silly season in Europe for nothing.

The offseason rumors that pop up and, in some cases, happen make for good entertainment around the world of soccer. Sometimes those rumors are connected to MLS, whether or not the chances of them coming to fruition are high.

The latest example of this is Steven Goff of the Washington Post tweeting out a juicy rumor involving the Chicago Fire and former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

Goff doesn’t sound very confident in it happening and there are plenty of reasons why, but there are also reasons why it could make sense. In this case, it makes sense for Casillas to be looking for a home to continue his career. When his contract at FC Porto expires at the end of this European season in June, he will be 37 years old.

It’s been two and a half years since he left Real Madrid, where he spent the rest of his career, and he’s not the elite goalkeeper he once was. If Casillas wants to keep playing he may not be able to stick at a Champions League club like Porto, and that’s where the MLS rumors come into play. It makes sense for Casillas to have interest in joining MLS.

On the Fire’s end, the team isn’t loaded at goalkeeper, although there are three keeprs under contract (Matt Lampson, Jorge Bava, Stefan Cleveland) with the possibility of a fourth (Richard Sanchez) also returning. The numbers logjam could be rectified without much problem if the Fire have a chance to snag Casillas.

His experience as a World Cup and Champions League winner (like Bastian Schweinsteiger), would be a nice addition to the team, regardless of age. Casillas was one of the best goalkeepers in the world and won Spain's La Liga five times and the Champions League three times in addition to winning the 2010 World Cup.

The question from the Fire’s perspective is if he could justify the high cost he would likely come with. Goalkeepers aren’t often highly paid players in MLS with the way the salary cap works. More flexibility has been added with more and more resources being given to teams from the league, but the cost of a player like Casillas may be difficult to justify at goalkeeper, even if he would provide another marketing and attendance boost like Schweinsteiger did.

This rumor makes for a good headline, but may not have much basis in reality. Still, there's a decent chance Casillas' name will continue to be connected with a move to MLS until he signs his next deal.

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

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USA TODAY

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

The MLS offseason doesn't take long to get in gear.

The Fire traded Arturo Alvarez earlier on Sunday, the same day which the list of protected players was to be announced ahead of Tuesday's expansion draft for Los Angeles FC.

LAFC will take five players in the expansion draft, which is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday. A team can only lose one player. Each team can protect 11 players and homegrown players aren't eligible for selection. For the Fire that means Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic can't be taken.

The Fire protected David Accam, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho, Matt Polster, Richard Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac and Brandon Vincent.

While Sanchez and Schweinsteiger are out of contract, the Fire have said they are negotiating with both players. Protecting Juninho is a bit of a surprise because it implies that the Fire have some intention of keeping him for next year, or at least keeping his rights to be traded.

The Fire left David Arshakyan, Jorge Bava, Brandt Bronico, Stefan Cleveland, Jorge Corrales, Michael de Leeuw, Christian Dean, Daniel Johnson and Matt Lampson unprotected. De Leeuw would be a worthwhile pickup for LA if it thinks he is worth it after his ACL tear suffered late in the season.

With only five players being selected it's fairly likely no Fire players are taken by LAFC, but it's arguable that de Leeuw will end up being one of the best five players available. The 31-year-old tied for the team lead with eight assists and scored three goals.