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.