Since the middle of last season Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez has spoken about two key needs for the team: an experienced midfielder and a key creator/scorer.
Rodriguez and the Fire have identified and acquired a player who they view as that scorer. The Fire have acquired striker Nemanja Nikolic from Legia Warsaw, the reigning Polish champions announced.
The Fire announced the move later on Tuesday afternoon, confirming Nikolic will take up a Designated Player spot, joining winger David Accam to make two on the team. Nikolic signed a three-year contract and general manager Nelson Rodriguez said a seven-figure transfer fee was involved.
"From the moment the club expressed interest and especially after speaking with manager Veljko Paunovic, and although I had other offers, this is where I wanted to be,” Nikolic said in the Fire's press release.
Nikolic, who turns 29 on New Year’s Eve, led the Ekstraklasa with 28 goals last season. That was the most anyone had scored in the league in 20 years. He helped Legia win the double, taking both the league and cup titles in Poland.
"Nemanja was one of our top priorities this offseason and a player we had been tracking for the better part of seven to eight months," Rodriguez said over the phone from Poland via a conference call after the Fire announced the signing. "He represents one of the types of game breakers that we sought in this offseason."
In 86 matches with Legia Warsaw, Nikolic scored 56 times, including five in six UEFA Champions League qualifying matches to get Legia into the Champions League group stage. Nikolic played in five of the six Champions League group matches, making two starts and scoring one goal. Legia Warsaw was third in its group behind Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.
Nikolic scored five goals in his last two matches for Legia, including a hat trick in his finale. He was named to the Ekstraklasa team of the week in his last game.
Nikolic is Serbian-born, but has represented Hungary at the international level. He has three goals in 23 caps for Hungary, including two substitute appearances at Euro 2016.
He joined the Polish capital club from Hungarian club Videoton following the 2014-15 season. When he was at Videoton he was a teammate of current Fire midfielder Arturo Alvarez. Nikolic was with Videoton from 2010-2015 while Alvarez spent two and a half seasons there.
"The fact that he has already adapted to different countries, different playing styles, different languages makes us believe that he will adapt to Chicago and Major League Soccer," Rodriguez said. "While we are very confident in his ability to adapt we must all always be patient with new signings. It is still a man and human being who has a family and will need time to adjust culturally."
Rodriguez added that Nikolic speaks four languages. He was born in Serbia and speaks Serbian, Hungarian, Polish and English.
The process of identifying and scouting Nikolic began last spring when the Fire were pursuing another player in the Polish league. Rodriguez said the league was underrated so they followed it more closely.
"In that course we noticed Nemanja and his abilities so we tracked him," Rodriguez said. "We had Matt Pearson, our scout, see him play live twice this fall. Then Pauno went to see him play live at the conclusion of our season as well. The live reports married what we felt we had been observing through video and through following full games on television and online."
Nikolic’s goal-scoring track record should translate well to Major League Soccer, although it should be noted that Legia Warsaw is one of the biggest clubs in Poland (11 league titles and 18 cup titles since 1955). It’s easier to score goals when part of a team that is usually creating more chances. Compare that to the Fire, which were last in MLS in shots on target last season.
Still, an attack led by Nikolic, Michael de Leeuw and David Accam sounds good on paper. The Fire’s next priority should be getting that experienced midfielder Rodriguez has mentioned so Nikolic and de Leeuw will have chances.