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The Nikolic Dilemma

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Unpacking the struggles of our favorite Hungarian striker

MLS: Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Nemanja Nikolic, the 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner, has played about 68 minutes in the last three games. This was in large part required due to an ankle injury. You’d think this would translate to poor results for the Men In Red.

Instead, the Fire have won two of their last three. The last one, Saturday’s 2-1 win over San Jose, saw Nikolic feature as a late second half substitute.

Call it recency bias. Call it other members of the squad stepping up. Either way, there’s a growing debate among Fire fans over whether Niko should get to keep his starting spot.

I say this because this has created debate and some conversations about possibly benching him for the short term. The numbers and performances, however have been ambiguous.

The numbers don’t exactly tell a clear story. In 13 total appearances this season (12 of them as a starter), Nikolic has tallied six goals and an assist. That’s not bad, even if it seems like a dip from last season.

But even when accounting for a smaller sample size, it’s hard to ignore two wins in three games with Nikolic playing a smaller role.

Against Orlando City, head coach Veljko Paunovic decided to yank Nikolic off after 45 minutes and replace him with Alan Gordon. That decision paid off, as Gordon scored in the 82nd and secured three points for the Fire.

Against the Philadelphia Union, Pauno didn’t take him on the trip in what would be a 3-1 loss, a game in which they were thoroughly outplayed.

This past weekend against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Fire secured a 2-1 victory with Nikolic coming on for Gordon in the 67th minute and putting in a solid performance, albeit one outshone by the likes of Aleksandar Katai and Brandt Bronico.

Pauno has demonstrated in recent games that he’s not confident with playing Nikolic and Gordon together— for him, it’s a one-or-the-other deal. Additionally, Gordon still can’t go a full 90 minutes. (Or rather, he can, but his efficacy goes downhill very quickly.) If Pauno gives Gordon another start in the US Open Cup then Nikolic should play at home Saturday against the New England Revolution.

There really is not much of a dilemma with Nikolic. As long as the Fire stick to a one striker system, Pauno is correct to play to the hot hand. If that is not Nikolic right now, that’s OK. Niko has shown what he’s capable of. He, like the rest of his team, just needs a little time.