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


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.

USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago


USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

Stadium talk is always circling around Major League Soccer and that goes double for the Chicago Fire, which has been criticized for playing in suburban Bridgeview since Toyota Park opened in 2006.

That's why the Chicago Tribune's story about a United Soccer League expansion team playing at a proposed 20,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof in Chicago is such a big deal. According to the report and confirmed by a USL spokesperson, real estate developer Sterling Bay has purchased the rights to a USL expansion team. The stated goal is to begin play in 2020.

The details of the stadium are not finalized so the features and capacity could still change.

The proposed location of the stadium is along the North Branch of the Chicago River between the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the Kennedy Expressway. The stadium was previously mentioned as part of Sterling Bay's bid to bring Amazon's second headquarters to Chicago. A spokesperson for Sterling Bay confirmed that the stadium being built is not contingent on Amazon coming to Chicago, it will happen regardless.

Further information from Sterling Bay said that "announcements on ownership and team structure will come at a later date." The team does not yet have a name, but fans will be included in the naming process.

A 20,000-seat stadium and a retractable roof will make for a fancy and impressive, but also expensive venue and a USL team as a primary tenant may prove difficult to justify the cost. The location itself would be an easier sell to draw in fans than Toyota Park out in Bridgeview. However, minor league soccer may not excite local residents in large number.

The USL had 30 teams in 2017 with eight more teams planned to join by 2019. This past season, only two USL teams averaged above 10,000 in attendance: FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC. Both of those are prime MLS expansion candidates and Cincinnati beat the Fire in the U.S. Open Cup in front of 32,287 fans in June.

Many USL clubs are either owned/operated by MLS teams or are affiliated with an MLS team. The Fire switched from Saint Louis FC to the Tulsa Roughnecks as its affiliated club in 2017, sending players to Tulsa to gain playing time as opposed to sitting on the bench with the Fire.

According to the Tribune's story, the stadium would also try to attract other events such as international soccer matches, college football, college basketball and concerts. Rugby and lacrosse were also named in documentation sent by Sterling Bay. Sterling Bay has also yet to present formal plans and still needs to gain zoning approval.

At the Fire's end of the season media availability on Nov. 7, general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked about the proposed stadium and if he or MLS had been contacted about it.

“I can’t speak about MLS," Rodriguez said. "I don’t know if they have or have not. I have not. I haven’t spoken, been approached by anyone. I’m not sure I would be the person they approach or speak to, but I’m not aware of any conversations.”

The Fire moving to this stadium could be an ideal solution for both parties. An MLS team with an existing fan base would have an easier time drawing big crowds. Boosted by the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Fire drew crowds of 20,000 or more six times in 2017. The regular season average of 17,383 was the highest since moving to Toyota Park and highest since the club's inaugural, championship-winning season in 1998.

However, things aren't that simple. The Fire are locked into a 30-year lease with Bridgeview and Toyota Park, which the Fire have played in since 2006. Getting out of that would require a significant buyout or a breach of contract.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason


Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.