MLS Spotlight: Passing on Premier League, Nikolic becoming a star with Fire

Mike Dinovo
Before Bastian Schweinsteiger came to MLS, the Hungary international spurned England and China to spark the struggling club's revival

WASHINGTON — Nemanja Nikolic is a goal-scorer, pure and simple. There's a reason nine of his MLS-leading 10 tallies only required one touch. He doesn't linger on the ball. He doesn't run at defenders. He doesn't drift into midfield.

Nikolic scores goals.

As a 6-year-old growing up in the modest Serbian town of Senta, Nikolic found himself driven by that moment of elation when ball meets net. He went on to strike 182 times over a decade-plus as a professional in Hungary and Poland. For a man who scores with businesslike efficiency, the unbridled joy persists.

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"To be honest, when I was small I loved to score goals — not just in the games but in the trainings," Nikolic told Goal. "Even now, when we have a session playing two teams against each other in practice and I score goals there, I feel happy. I think these kind of feelings move me further and further."

After back-to-back seasons as the worst team in MLS, the Chicago Fire sit second in the Eastern Conference at 6-3-3 — just one win shy of their 2016 total. The ballyhooed acquisition of German star Bastian Schweinsteiger brought quality and credibility to Chicago. Offseason additions Dax McCarty and Juninho have earned plaudits for stabilizing the midfield.

Nemanja Nikolic Michael de Leeuw Chicago Fire

But make no mistake: The Fire's resurgence kick-started Dec. 20, the day Nikolic spurned lucrative offers from England and China to become Chicago's first addition of the offseason. While many a foreign signing has taken time to acclimate to MLS, the 29-year-old Hungary international needed just 11 games to hit double-digit goals.

"That's someone who literally goes to sleep and wakes up in the morning just thinking about scoring goals," McCarty said. "It's no surprise that he's had success everywhere he's played.

"He's clever. He's not the fastest guy in the world, he's not the biggest guy in the world, he's not the strongest guy in the world, but he's a guy who manipulates space with defenders. When you have pretty good passers behind him, we can find him in dangerous spots."

Nikolic traces his instincts in the sport back to his father, Zoran, who played for a third-division club in Serbia. Once a year, the Nikolic clan would tag along for preseason camp. The tone in training was "casual." Yet Nikolic remembers the fervor, and how it rubbed off on him and his older brother, Vukan.

"I saw the atmosphere," Nikolic said. "The love and the happiness was there. I could see how they fight and how they want to win and how they practice day by day. My dad, I wanted to be like him.

"We dreamed to be football players. But when you are from the small city it is very difficult."

When Nikolic turned 18, he and his brother left Serbia to sign with a second-tier side in their mother's native Hungary. While his brother still plays in the lower levels of Hungary, Nikolic was only beginning to climb the ladder.

Playing for Hungarian power Videoton from 2010 to 2015, Nikolic won three scoring crowns and a pair of league titles. A move to Legia Warsaw followed, and Nikolic led the Polish league and cup competition in goals as his club claimed the double in 2015-16.

Nemanja Nikolic GFX

After competing for Hungary at Euro 2016, Nikolic tabled interest from abroad so he could play for Legia in the UEFA Champions League — going on to score six goals in 11 appearances.

Once Legia exited the competition, Nikolic began considering advances from the Premier League, Championship, Chinese Super League and more. In fielding those offers, he weighed the impact a move would have not only his career but, more importantly, his wife, 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

"This was, for me and my family, a big step in our life," Nikolic said. "We were moving to a total other country, total other culture, far away from our home."

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Lifestyle-wise, Chicago offered obvious perks. But the soccer side amounted to a leap of faith. Entering their second year in charge, coach Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez outlined a vision of the players they wanted to sign. Nikolic understood that he, ideally, would be the first domino to fall.

"It was very important which person I worked with," Nikolic said. "Pauno called me on the phone and I could feel in his voice he's really motivated to do some good things here."

For the Fire, a striker of Nikolic's pedigree represented a key step toward upgrading the conference's lowest-scoring attack. As a designated player in his 20s, Nikolic offered a younger complement to the eventual acquisition of the 32-year-old Schweinsteiger.

"We were 100 percent sure who we were bringing into our locker room and in our team," Paunovic said. "Right now we have him in his prime, and that's important for us."

While Nikolic has made the transition appear seamless, the Golden Boot leader acknowledges he's still adjusting to the long flights and time-zone changes after leaving the cozier confines of Europe.

Geography has presented a challenge for Nikolic's national team prospects, as well. Speaking to Hungary coach Bernd Storck last week, Nikolic decided to stay stateside for the Fire's match against Orlando City on June 4 rather than travel 10-plus hours for World Cup qualifying. ("If I am not fresh," Nikolic said, "it is not good for me and also for the team.")

It's a decision that further strengthens Nikolic's commitment to the Fire. In signing a three-year deal this past December, Nikolic relished the pride — and pressure — that came with life as a franchise centerpiece.

"The player can feel when somebody wants him a lot," Nikolic said. "And of course, the player wants to play in this kind of team when a lot of people believe in him."