Chicago Fire 3 (Nikolic 3’, 63’, 78’)
Philadelphia Union 2 (Kappelhof OG 6’, Bedoya 13’)
If you’ve watched football for more than a few months, it’s not hard to make a case against Chicago Fire striker Nemanja Nikolic as an elite player. The man they call ‘Niko’ is not physically imposing, neither quick nor fast nor strong. His passing range and awareness mean he’s not a reliable partner in combination. His first touch comes and goes. And so on.
What he does have is one incredible ability - the ability to score goals, as treasured a sporting ability as exists on the planet. It’s a multivalent talent, more than technique - as far more technically-adept players are much worse around goal than Niko - more, even, than the obvious hunger with which he pursues the next chance. Some large part of it involves Niko building a fantasy about himself, imagining it vividly, and then encountering those crucial moments in the game as the true pathways into that fantasy.
In 2017, the Fire have profited handsomely from Niko’s primary talent, but there has always been a feeling that the Serbo-Hungarian was profiting from being the finisher for a team that was just tearing its opponents to pieces. In tonight’s final regular-season game at Toyota Park, Niko did his best to put that idea to rest, snatching a hat trick to drag his Chicago Fire back from a deficit to win, 3-2, against the visiting Philadelphia Union. The three goals advanced his tally to 24, best in MLS by four clear goals with one game to play.
The Fire came out mentally flat, slow to step to the ball and hesitant in possession, but led almost from the opening whistle. Union center back Jack Elliott couldn’t decide how to play a simple Brandon Vincent pass over the top into the left channel, instead opting for “none of the above.” Niko had never stopped running, and simply ran onto the bounding ball, settled it with a touch, entered a Zen state wherein he is light as a feather and all outcomes favored him and the people that mattered to him, and rifled a whip-crack finish to Andre Blake’s back post. It was 1-0 just 3 minutes in.
The lead was more Niko’s than Chicago’s, and it was soon frittered away. The general early-game sluggishness was well illustrated in the buildup to the first Philadelphia goal, as Union winger Fafa Picault was able to switch the ball from the left flank to the right just about 10 yards above the Fire’s area on the ground, essentially rolling the ball from one side of that blood-and-bone wrecking-ball swath to the other without any Chicago players intervening. Chris Pontius one-touched a through ball into the path of CJ Sapong’s looping run which had shaken Joao Meira, and Sapong banged a shot / cross which a lunging Johan Kappelhof could only spray into his own goal: 1-1, and the Fire looking very uncertain.
Chicago had reason to worry. Many of the most influential players of their earlier dominant stretch did not start - Bastian Schweinsteiger, yes, but also David Accam, Michael de Leeuw and Juninho. What was left bore a startling resemblance to the Fire team that finished bottom of the table last season, with Dax McCarty and Nikolic as the upgrades. In a nearby universe, this was the 2017 Fire - the spending flat, the acquisitions of Dax and Niko funded by the sale of Accam - and that team was not a successful one.
The Union took the lead against this poor-man’s 2017 Men in Red in the 13th minute. Haris Medunjanin pounced on a Meira half-clearance and lifted a ball into the space behind the Portuguese centerback. Alejandro Bedoya, presented with a difficult decision on how to handle a bouncing ball with Fire keeper Matt Lampson rushing out to him, solved it brilliantly, finding a way to chip the awkward waist-high bounce into the far side of Lampson’s goal.
A funny thing happened after that goal: The Fire remembered that they were better than all that. Philadelphia’s willingness to fall into a deep block allowed the Men in Red to remember the possession basics which undergirded their fantastic form in the early summer. Moving the ball from side to side, patiently probing, the hosts couldn’t fashion much concrete, though. What they did do is thoroughly exhaust the visitors, setting the stage for a second-half comeback.
Halftime entry Accam earned the tying goal, beating the snakebit Elliott to a long ball and somehow staying upright through a series of foul challenges from Elliott in the area, ending with a lunging tackle that finally led Allen Chapman to point to the penalty spot. Niko needed to be sharp to beat Blake on the spot kick, as the Jamaican guessed correctly and flung his considerable length toward the ball - only to see the kick’s power win the duel, glancing off his gloves and into the goal. Just over an hour in and the game was square again, 2-2.
The best finish of the night was the last one, and it gathered up all the threads of the game in one sweeping final move. The exhausted Union seemed befuddled by a deep underlap by Vincent, who powered forward in the left channel after feeding Accam the ball by the left touchline, inverting their partnership when Accam found Vincent entering the attacking third. Vincent’s sharply-struck centering pass looked aimless until it found Nikolic’s charging run from midfield, and the finish was even sharper, a bang-bang first-time bullet of a shot to the back post from 20 yards. 3-2, where it would finish.
Chicago (16-10-7) travels to Houston to wrap up the MLS regular season next Sunday