niko fire inside

The Fire Inside: Thank you, Niko

It wasn’t a goal.

There are so many memories you could pick out as the single symbolic image of Nemanja Nikolić’s time in Chicago. And if you wanted to choose a goal, you’d have your pick — 56 of them to be precise, scored by a savvy master finisher.

But despite those goals and the accolades that came with them — including the 2017 MLS Golden Boot, an All-Star selection and an ESPY award, my abiding memory of Nemanja Nikolić in a Chicago Fire jersey will not be a goal.

Instead it was a moment of generosity that took place towards the end of the 2019 regular season — a moment that distilled everything about who “Niko” has been as a Fire teammate.

As strike partner CJ Sapong rounded the goalkeeper during the 4-0 rout of Dallas, the onrushing Nikolić had the opportunity to race in, touch the ball into an empty net and open the scoring.

Instead he checked his run, held his hands in the air and let Sapong finish the move he’d started.

“He did the work,” was Nikolic’s typically generous shrug as he reviewed the play later, but it spoke volumes about who he is. And let’s not forget the work Nemanja Nikolić did too, throughout his time in Chicago, though perhaps especially this year.

If 2017 was a wonder campaign for Nikolić — one of those seasons where everything he touched turned to goals — 2019 was a season where “Niko” ground out his goals, revealing his depths of mental strength, his work ethic, and not for nothing, a lot of grace and humility in service of his team.

Characteristically, he finished strong — from a period where he even dropped out of the starting eleven in late spring, to surging out of the summer on a goalscoring run, Nikolić never lost personal faith in his goalscoring abilities.

He also never lost touch with the principle of the team as his first priority. At the time of the Dallas game, the team’s playoff hopes were in the balance, and he would have known he may be in the final few games of his Chicago career. Who could have blamed one of the team’s Designated Players, and de facto icons, for knocking the ball in for one more memory, or just to bolster his stats for the year (as it turned out, a grateful Sapong would beat him to the team Golden Boot by a single goal)?

He didn’t, and it’s the mark of the man. Strikers need to have singular focus, and for many a certain selfishness comes with the territory — but Nemanja Nikolic’s ruthlessness in front of goal was always in service of the team, not his own ego, and for that alone he deserves every fond memory of his time with the Fire. A big finisher. A bigger heart. Thank you, Niko.

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