Striker Nemanja Nikolic keeps it simple. “My job is to score goals,” he said when asked about bagging all three so far in the Chicago Fire’s run to the Quarterfinal of the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In a long career spanning both sides of the Atlantic, no one can ever accuse the big Serb striker of shirking those particular professional duties.
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“Every goal I score helps us get a little closer to the things I want, the things the team wants, like the Open Cup and MLS Cup,” said Nikolic, a 30-year-old veteran playing in his second season in Major League Soccer (MLS). “Every striker needs to appreciate the goals when they come because every goal can give an advantage and extra confidence for something new to come your way. As long as I’m scoring, I’m helping my teammates and my team.”
(Nikolic scored twice against Columbus Crew in the 2018 USOC & got the winner in Atlanta)
Niko, as he’s known affectionately in Chicago, won something last year. His 24 goals were enough for the Golden Boot, MLS’s top-scorer prize. But a tireless worker on the field and every inch a team player, he won’t be pleased with only individual recognition. After reaching the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2012 with a strong regular-season run last year, Chicago went out in the first round to New York Red Bulls. They also went out of the Open Cup at the Quarterfinal stage after a shock loss on the road against second-division Cinderellas FC Cincinnati. There’s steeliness in his voice, accented heavily toward Eastern Europe, when he says: “We are all really motivated to win something this year.”
Still a Sting
You get a sense that the loss to FC Cincy, in front of a then- U.S. Open Cup-record crowd in Ohio, still stings a bit. The big striker is more than shouldering his share of the load in this year’s Open Cup, where he’s scored all three of the team’s goals in a Fourth Round win over Columbus Crew and a Round-of-16 victory against Atlanta United. Both games were on the road and Coach Veljko Paunović used strong Starting XIs, including Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, in addition to his goal-scoring ace Nikolic, in a display of determination to land what would be the club’s fifth Open Cup crown.
(Nikolic poses at Toyota Park with the 2017 MLS Golden Boot)
“This [Open Cup] is important for our club and for our fans,” said Nikolic, whose nine goals so far in the season see him 11th in the MLS top-scorer charts, “This is our opportunity to win something. We played two of the best teams in the league in our first two games in the Cup and we played both games away. That says something about what we’re doing here. But as you get closer to the Final, the games get tougher and the pressure gets bigger. It’s important to remember, we haven’t won anything yet.”
Up next for Nikolic and the Fire is a second-straight Quarterfinal, at home at their Toyota Park, against the tournament’s lone remaining second-division team: Louisville City of the United Soccer League. Those unfamiliar with the methods and madness of the 105-year-old Open Cup might think of this as an easy day – a walk in the park. A top-division pro team against a second-tier side could only go one way, right? Chicago fans only have to look back one year to know this isn’t true. An old Cup specialist like Nikolic knows better too. “For us, this game will be the toughest one we’ve had,” said the striker. “It’s the game that opens the door to the Semifinals and then you’re just one game away from the Final. Our opponent will fight for everything and we have to respect that.”
(Niko scored 24 goals last year - best in MLS - and has nine in the league and three in the Cup so far in 2018)
He knows about the ups and downs of Cup play. He’s lifted domestic Cups overseas and been on both sides of upsets in those mid-week games when everything is on the line – when it’s win or go home. In his last year in Europe before moving to the States, Nikolic was top-scorer in the Polish Cup and led Legia Warsaw to a League/Cup double. He also scored 41 goals in 51 league games at the club. “I’ve been in more Cups than I can count,” said Nikolic with a chuckle, recalling ruefully the two times he played in the final in the Magyar Kupa [Hungary’s Cup] – and both times he lost.
While Nikolic is a goal-scorer at his core, he brings much more to the party in Chicago. Coach Paunović, himself a Serbian, had eyes on the center-forward for years before signing him up. “His quality is scoring goals and assisting, but he can participate in both phases of team play,” said the coach, who had stints in Spain and Germany. “Defensively, he helps the team to recover the ball as soon as possible. Sometimes he will benefit from team play and he will be just the finisher, but sometimes he creates his own situations in the game, the opportunities 1v1, and scoring his own goals.”
(Nikolic and co. will remember the sting of losing to second-division FC Cincinnati in last year's Quarters)
Nikolic is the first to hustle a defender after losing the ball and he’s among the most clinical finishers you’ll see. Among a raft of top strikers in MLS – your David Villas, BWPs and your Ibras – he’s right there among them for quality in the attacking third. “He wants to compete against Villa," Paunovic continued. "He wants to compete against Piatti, Wright-Phillips and all the other big guys, the best scorers we have in the league. That’s what we want. We want guys who have the highest expectations and work hard to get there. He’s capable of pushing himself very, very far, but also he’s capable of influencing others to do the same.”
Open Cup Opening Up
In a professional career that’s spanned 12 seasons, seen him bag nearly a goal every other game, and line up in the finals of the EURO in 2016 with his adoptive Hungary, Nikolic is hunting for a trophy in America – and not just a top-scorer gong. He wants to be on a winning team. It’s the reason he came and the reason he was brought all this way. Like the rest of the Fire, he sees that opportunity in the 2018 Open Cup.
(23 is big number among Chicago sports fans & Niko wears it with pride for the Fire)
“We’re so motivated to win this trophy,” he said. “We are just three steps away – and that’s not too much but it’s also way too much if you know what I mean. It’s still very far away and we need to focus our attentions on the next game. Your next opponent is always the toughest. If we win that, we can think about the Semifinal and the same after that.”
There are many reasons for Chicago Fire’s arrival at this stage of the competition, just two steps from the Final. Nikolic and his three goals are a major factor. To hear his motivation for success in the Cup, it’s hard to imagine him slowing down any time soon. “When you win something, you become a part of history,” said the motivated attacker, a wily old pro caught up in the allure of a Cup hunt. “And me and my teammates want to put our names in there. It’s still far away, but we want it.”