Can Anyone Stop Nikolic?
Chicago Fire striker Nemanja Nikolic continued his torrid form on Wednesday, notching two goals in the Fire’s 3:0 wipeout of the Colorado Rapids at Toyota Park. The victory kept the Fire undefeated at home this season. Overall, the Fire have 18 points from their 11 matches and they are unquestionably on a roll.
And no one has been on a roll more than Nikolic, who is the league’s top goalscorer, with 10 goals. After a few unremarkable performances early in the season, where Nikolic was frequently caught offside, the striker has been almost unstoppable, scoring at least one goal in six of his last seven games. No Fire player in club history has reached the 10-goal mark in fewer games than Nikolic has. Mike Magee had set the previous mark in 2013, scoring 10 times in his first 16 matches.
But it’s not just been Nikolic who has excelled lately. The Fire’s midfield has been dynamic, an orchestra led by maestro Bastian Schweinsteiger. Against Colorado, Schweinsteiger reprised his role of midfield boss. Schweinsteiger could be found almost anywhere on the field and his influence was always significant. His partnership with Dax McCarty takes Fire fans back to the memorable days of Peter Nowak and Chris Armas patrolling the middle of the field.
After a defining win over Seattle, the Fire could ill afford to lay an egg against the punchless Rapids. Coach Veljko Paunovic left conversations about squad rotation during a busy stretch for another day and trotted out the same eleven who started versus Seattle, except for a change at right back, where Matt Polster got his first start of the season. Although this move sent Drew Conner to the bench after two productive starts, it also demonstrated that Paunovic has actual defensive depth. Polster did a fine job over the 90 minutes, and now the right side of the Fire’s backline just got a whole lot better over the past couple of weeks. The Fire are well served with either Polster or Conner slotted in at right back, and it also signals (thankfully) the end of the Michael Harrington era.
The Fire picked up against Colorado right where they left off on Saturday, relentlessly attacking the opposing goal. They generated corner kicks in quick succession in the early minutes of the contest, pinning the Rapids back in their own end. A goal was inevitable and the Fire got their reward in the 15th minute, when Brandon Vincent floated a cross to the far post. Nikolic had found space behind Jared Watts and nodded home easily. After sustaining so much early pressure from the Fire, the Rapids had sagged back so much that Vincent had loads of time and space as he brought the ball forward. Colorado goalkeeper Tim Howard should be furious with Watts, who was lazily ball-watching and had little idea of Nikolic’s position.
If the Rapids had any designs on escaping this trip to Bridgeview with a scoreless draw, the early goal turned that plan upside down. With the bunker-and-counter strategy no longer in play, the Rapids would have to find a way to gain control of the midfield. They were ill-equipped to pull that off and spent the rest of the night chasing the game.
The Fire kept coming at Colorado after Nikolic’s opener and the Rapids scrambled to prevent further damage. David Accam’s strong effort in the 18th minute flew just wide of Howard’s left post.
Chicago were not far away from a second goal in the 34th minute. Schweinsteiger supplied the pass for the overlapping Polster on the right side, who centered immediately for Accam. The winger turned on the ball at the top of the area, firing a first-timer at Howard. Showing excellent reflexes, Howard lunged to his right to deflect the shot. Michael de Leeuw chased down the rebound near the touch line and shot weakly from a difficult angle.
Although the Fire were firmly in control, a one-goal lead can disappear with one bad bounce or after a strange referee decision. Colorado entered the second half with no new ideas, but at least they had a stiff wind at their back to help carry their typically useless booming passes to no one an extra ten yards.
The Fire truly put their stamp on the contest in the 57th minute, as Accam finished off a slick sequence of passes that involved four of his teammates. Polster carried the ball comfortably up the right side and played a simple pass towards the corner of the box for Luis Solignac. Polster ran into the space inside and Solignac returned the ball with one touch. Polster laid off for Nikolic at the top of the box and he gave it back to Polster, now at the doorstep of the goal area. Polster read the play astutely, centering for de Leeuw, who took the most delicate of touches to send the ball to the back post for Accam, who slammed it into the roof of the net. The teamwork on display was nothing short of spectacular, as everyone involved sought to make the smart play. Every Rapids player in the vicinity of the penalty area was either out of position or stood still.
Nikolic capped off the big night with a well-taken goal off the counter in the 74th minute. De Leeuw collected a bouncing ball near midfield on the right flank by flicking it over the head of Watts, who arrived too late to win it. As the Rapids complained about a high boot from de Leeuw, the Dutchman was racing towards the Colorado goal. His vision and timing were exquisite, as he played a diagonal ball to back post for the supporting Nikolic. Knocking the ball past Howard was the easiest part of the play.
Schweinsteiger has mentioned how little patience he sees in MLS matches and he wants to bring more patience and calmness to the Fire’s style of play. He is demonstrating this message to his teammates through his actions, dictating tempo and pace. The rest of the team seem to be getting the message. Seven goals in the last two matches is evidence enough, but the Fire are creating boatloads of dangerous scoring chances. Now that Nikolic is finding the target with regularity, the fruits of that labor show up in the most important place: the Eastern Conference standings that show a Fire team definitely on the rise.