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 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.