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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.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.