Fire

Why Nemanja Nikolic deserved to be the Fire’s MVP beyond his goal total

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USA TODAY

Why Nemanja Nikolic deserved to be the Fire’s MVP beyond his goal total

Goal-scorers win awards and get extra attention so it’s no secret why Nemanja Nikolic, who led MLS in goals in 2017, was named the Fire’s team MVP on Tuesday.

However, it’s not that simple in this case.

Nikolic led the league with 24 goals and blew away the club record for goals in a season. Goals are the most valuable thing in soccer, but in the case of Nikolic and the Fire, the reasons why he is team MVP go well beyond simply goals scored.

There are three other players who, when healthy and playing at their best, were arguably better players and more valuable to the Fire this season: Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam. Taking each player one at a time will show how they were more valuable at times than Nikolic, but ultimately fell short when looking at the season as a whole.

For starters, McCarty was a revelation in midfield. The 30-year-old, along with Schweinsteiger and Juninho, helped turn the Fire’s midfield from one of the worst in the league to one of the better ones. His leadership and experience of playing on winning teams in MLS (this was his eighth straight year being on a playoff team) was crucial in helping turn things around.

In the first half of the season McCarty was arguably playing the best he had in his career. However, as he continued to get called in to the national team, he missed six games and his form wasn’t as strong in the second half of the year. (Sidenote: McCarty was by far the Fire’s best player in the team’s playoff loss.)

The story is similar, but different for Schweinsteiger. The German signed after the Fire played three games and was incredibly influential early on. However, as teams adjusted to the Fire’ style of play, Schweinsteiger took on a different role and on top of that he played only 19 minutes in the final seven matches of the year. Schweinsteiger was the Fire’s best player at his peak, but the late-season injury was killer for the Fire down the stretch.

Like with Schweinsteiger, Accam’s season was derailed by an injury. He set the league on fire with 12 goals and seven assists in his first 19 games of the season. He ranked in the top five in MLS in both categories, the only player at the time to have that claim. However, a nerve injury in his hip limited him and he finished with two goals and an assist in his final 11 games and started just one of the Fire’s final four regular season matches. Accam was the player opposing teams had to gameplan for most due to his speed, ability to beat a player in one-on-one situations and his willingness to set up teammates, but he wasn’t the same player in the last third of the season.

While these three players showcased more well-rounded games and impacted the team in more than one way, Nikolic was the most consistent. The Hungarian forward did have a midseason slump of nine straight games without a goal, a stretch that the Fire went 2-6-1 in, but when the team was pushing for playoff seeding at the end of the regular season he delivered. Nikolic scored eight goals in the last seven matches and six in the last four.

Nikolic even had his own MVP moment in the final home game of the regular season against Philadelphia. He scored an early goal to give the Fire the lead, but the Union went into halftime up 2-1. Nikolic tied the match with a penalty kick and later scored the game-winner on what may have been his best finish of the season. That goal, and the win it produced, proved crucial to locking up a home game in the first round of the playoffs. If the Fire tied that match they would have been fifth in the standings heading into the final game at Houston.

Of course, the Fire wasted that home playoff game, but the significance of Nikolic producing his best finish in a spot that big late in the season is a big reason why he deserves to be the team’s MVP. For much of the season he was the Fire’s fourth, maybe even fifth best player, but he was the only player on the team to play in every match and he started every one. That reliability, combined with his goals and the slumps of the team’s better players, makes Nikolic a no-brainer for team MVP.

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.