BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Nemanja Nikolic likes the position he’s in heading to the final two weeks of the regular season, with the Chicago Fire locked into a playoff berth and himself atop the Golden Boot standings.
There’s no more chasing – only holding on to his top spot and helping the Fire secure a playoff home game as they head into Sunday’s match against Philadelphia (5 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
“The bad thing is when you need to look in front of you who is there and you need to follow him, follow his game and also to focus on your game,” Nikolic said Wednesday. “Now in this moment I again don’t need to look [at] nobody in front of me, I have everything in my hand.
“We have an important game against Philly, for me individually and for the team. And like always I will try to score a goal and to try to win the Golden Boot. It would be amazing if I will in my first year win this kind of title, but like always I don’t think just about the Golden Boot, for me the most important is to win against Philly.”
Nikolic began the season on record-breaking pace, netting 16 goals in the first 18 games of his MLS career. During the Fire’s midsummer lull, however, Nikolic went a full nine games without finding the back of the net.
As the goalless streak stretched on, Nikolic fell off the record pace and slipped from atop the Golden Boot standings, with Portland’s Diego Valeri, NYCFC’s David Villa and Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez charging up the list.
Nikolic broke his drought with a tying goal against the New York Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and has scored four more in four games since. With 21 goals on the season he has already broken the club record for most goals in a campaign.
Back on top of the Golden Boot table, Nikolic praised those chasing him, saying he thinks “a couple players deserve to win this Golden Boot in this year because the competition is really tight.”
Nikolic said the chase wouldn’t be the same if the Fire weren’t also winning.
“If the team they don’t have nothing from my goals, it don’t mean nothing for me, so the main thing is to be on the same page and try to help the team,” Nikolic said. “Of course this is my first year here, my first season, a lot of people they don’t know me before, also the good thing is I put my name now in MLS and I have a long contract here and I hope that I will score a lot of goals.
“The season is not over, I don’t win nothing yet, so these two games it will be a really long 180 minutes for me and the other players who want to win this Golden Boot. I think more people deserve to win this because a lot of good strikers have a good season, but how I say, in these two games we need to decide who will be the first.”
Teammate Arturo Alvarez said Nikolic’s chase isn’t discussed too often within the squad, aside from some occasional ribbing.
“Me personally, I want Niko to win the Golden Boot and if we can help him get there then we will,” Alvarez said. “Obviously we kind of joke around like ‘Hey this guy is putting pressure on you’ but other than that, at the end of the day we want him to win it.”
It’s obvious that Nikolic, who has won top-scorer accolades at previous stops in his career, takes it seriously, calling it “No joke.”
“Of course, for every striker I think in the beginning of the season the collective and everything is the most important, but strikers lives from the goals and in the end of the day everybody is watching who was the best striker in the league,” Nikolic said. “A couple times I win these kind of titles so I know the feeling, how it’s good, how proud can be the player when he finishes first.”
Despite leading the Golden Boot race and helping drive the league’s most improved team into the playoffs, Nikolic seems to be an afterthought at best, or overlooked completely, in discussions about the race for the Landon Donovan MVP award.
“It’s not really up to us, his teammates, I think he’s obviously a very important player to our team, to our club and I think he should definitely in the talk for the MVP,” Alvarez said. “You know, important players and obviously Golden Boot leaders are always in the talks so I don’t see why Niko shouldn’t be on it. I think some players go throughout the season with ups and downs and Niko and I think everyone else has and that’s normal, but someone that scored 21 goals, I don’t see how he’s definitely not in that talk.”
Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic was fine with Nikolic not getting any more outside praise or attention at this point.
“No. I don’t think he should get more attention,” Paunovic said. “I want Niko like he is now, focused on the team and scoring goals, and then when the season is over everyone will get what he deserved. I just want Niko to be like he is, humble, working hard for the team, and I don’t really care if somebody is paying attention to that or not. I think the most important is our team and Niko’s role and performance in our team, which was great so far.”
John Wilkinson is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.