Twenty-nine combined goals. 151 combined shots. Two MVP candidates with strong cases to be considered MLS' top striker in 2017.
When the Chicago Fire take the field against New York City FC on Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. CT, CSN Chicago Plus), Yankee Stadium looks poised to host one of the highest-profile forward matchups the league has seen so far this season.
Enter first Chicago's Nemanja Nikolic. The Serbian-born Hungarian international has exploded onto the scene in his debut MLS season, having bagged 16 goals at the 2017 midway point to top the MLS Golden Boot standings and help propel the Fire to first place in the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings. Lining up across from him at kickoff will be New York City’s David Villa, the reigning MLS MVP, and a man firmly in the "all-time MLS Designated Player Mount Rushmore" conversation.
“He’s a complete player and a complete striker,” Nikolic said of his soon-to-be MLS All-Star teammate.
Villa is right on Nikolic’s heels in the scoring charts coming out of the CONCACAF Gold Cup break. His 13 goals are good for second place in the Golden Boot standings, a haul that’s level with Houston’s Erick Torres. Nikolic credits Villa’s evergreen ability to find the back of the net as a motivating factor in his own quest to shake up the league’s record books.
“He helped me a lot to grow, because as a striker, you want to fight with the best,” Nikolic said. “And he’s for sure one of the best in the league. He pushes me more, because every week he scores a goal and makes good games for his team. It’s motivation for me and other strikers to be better and better. We cannot be in our comfort zone.”
So while Saturday marks the first time these two will physically square off on the pitch, it has already been a season full of competition between the pair. When voting for the 2017 MLS All-Star Fan XI went live in June, it was Nikolic and Villa vying for the top vote among fans to represent the league at the forward position. When Nikolic scored six goals in the month of May to help the Fire begin their ascension to the top of the Eastern Conference, it was Villa’s New York City FC they were looking up at in the standings.
Both share that innate ability to be in the right place at the right time and finish clinically with a single touch, while Villa has also been to known to create his own shot -- with seemingly limitless range.
"For me, maybe it’s the worst to play against (Villa),” Fire defender Joao Meira smirked. “He’s still very smart. He fights for every ball, and if he has a chance or off-chance, he scores a goal. We need to be focused 100 percent, or more than 100 percent."
Come Saturday, the 35-year-old Spaniard will surely be looking to add to his 53 goals scored across his 81 MLS appearances since arriving prior to the 2015 season. He scored twice in his last meeting with the Fire, leading City to a 4-1 victory back in September of 2016.
"He’s a top striker who has the capacity to find good moments, to finish the game alone,” Nikolic added. “He’s shown in one of the best leagues in the world what he can do, you know, in Spain. He played for one of the best teams in the world. He won everything.”
For two target men with aspirations to “win everything" in 2017, it will have to start with a win over their counterpart in New York City on Saturday.