MLS is growing and getting better every season, and along with that the level of talent is steadily rising every year. This is particularly evident on the attacking side of the ball, as world-class talents put on a show weekly across the states.
The Chicago Fire’s front line has the talent and experience to be considered the most dangerous attacking unit in MLS. With three Designated Player-level talents combined with great veteran knowledge, the Fire have the personnel to find the back of the net and make life difficult on opposing defenses on a nightly basis.
For the Fire’s offensive players, the major key to their success is diversity. As MLS defenses and game plans advance and grow more technical, clubs are forced to become much more multi-dimensional in their attacking strategies and paths. What is special about this group of players is that while they all are highly skilled, they each bring a unique attribute and style of play that allows their teammates to counteract what the opposition is doing defensively and find different routes to the goal.
Chicago has two dominant strikers that operate very differently, allowing head coach Veljko Paunovic the opportunity to mix and match, and create favorable line-ups that exploit opponent’s weaknesses. The 2017 golden boot winner Nemanja Nikolic is a bulldog of a striker, adapt at getting in behind defenses with his well-timed runs and great positioning, and as a result, finding himself in great position for crosses and rebounded opportunities. Over his two-plus seasons in the Windy City, Niko has proven that he has the striker’s touch to finish those chances and put points on the board.
Watching the highlights against New England from earlier this season, Niko put on a clinic demonstrating exactly what makes him such a deadly goalscoring threat. His first two opportunities came as a result of him working the Rev’s backline, bursting into space with well-timed runs and finding the best shot for himself. While his finishing has been below-standard for him this season, its important to see the Serbian continuing to manufacture those chances, as they will eventually find their way into the back of the net, like his second two chances against New England. Nikolic put himself into great spots on a pair of set-pieces and anticipated well to position himself for relatively easy tap-ins.
If Niko can continue to be patient and keep working hard out there, his scoring will round back into form. Another fifteen-goal season is not out of the question for the Fire forward.
Nikolic’s counterpart at the forward position, CJ Sapong is a wonderful yin to his yang, excelling in hold up play as well as dropping back to get on the ball to create attacking movements. The MLS veteran has proven eager and willing to use his physical gifts to hold off defenders and compete well for aerial duels.
One of Chicago’s newest players, the former Sporting KC and Union man quickly made a name for himself in his new home, doing a lot of the heavy lifting in front of goal with Nikolic misfiring early in the year, as he recorded a goal or assist in each of the team’s first three games. His most famous moment for Chicago will undoubtably be his stoppage time equalizer against Orlando, where he rose like a salmon out of the water as two defenders watched helplessly, his towering header beating Brian Rowe at the death.
More than what appears in the box score, Sapong’s versatility in his positioning and ability to contribute to build ups and the passing game helps him stand out as a player. Sapong is capable of playing out wide, underneath Nikolic or up top as the main striker, and can adapt his game to best suit the positional requirements. Many times throughout the season, Fire fans will see Sapong working back to get on the ball, controlling possession with his back to goal before finding the right pass or turning his man, and sending in beautiful crosses from the wing.
With so many attacking options, Sapong’s swiss-knife skill set will allow Paunovic to maximize his line-ups to best overcome the opponent’s game plans.
Out on the wing, Chicago’s Serbian DP has provided fireworks numerous times during his stay in the Windy City, putting it a number of star performances. Aleksander Katai has proven capable of putting the team on his back and creating opportunities out of nothing, able to find opportunities for himself and never afraid to challenge the goalie with his powerful long-range shots.
Katai is so lethal when cutting in, capable of dribbling circles around his defenders or using his subtle touches to create space to rip a curling effort past the goalie. Perhaps the best example of his magic comes from a game against NYCFC last season. Trailing 1-2, Katai provided an exquisite brace in just six second half minutes, first turning his defender inside-out before launching a strike to the far post, then using his deft touches to send two defenders sliding past before slotting past Sean Johnson.
When focused, Katai is perhaps the most gifted attacker the Fire possess. Even when not directly involved in an offensive movement, his proven history of goal-scoring prowess and consistent menace from the wing force defenders to stay true and keeps them out wide, creating more space down the middle for his teammates to work.
On the opposite wing is the newest stone in the Fire’s Infinity Gauntlet of attack, Przemyslaw Frankowski. The Polish international brings a mixture of blazing speed and silky dribbling that allows him to race down his touchline and leave defenders in his wake.
His pace and creativity in passing and dribbling have added an extra dimension to the Fire’s attack and game strategies, forcing defenses to be wary of high lines as he will be able to run right past them. As a result, there is extra room in the center of the pitch for Chicago’s dynamic midfielders to go to work, finding the outlet passes to their forwards that lead to better scoring opportunities.
Thanks to an injury, the speedster has been able to go the full ninety minutes only six times this season, but has racked up three assists and a goal in his limited time in MLS. When fully healthy and comfortable in his new league, expect Frankowski to develop into a top-tier wing player that provides a consistent outlet for pressure and counter attacks. His breakaway on the counter-attack against Minnesota was a thing of beauty, and served to make all Fire fans hungry for more of the explosive speed and ability the Men in Red have been missing since David Accam’s departure.
When combined, this group of players provides massive headaches for their opponent, and can quickly light up the scoreboard, which they proved against New England and Colorado, putting on an offensive showcase to the tune of nine goals in those two games.
As they become more familiar with each other, this group will become even more lethal, as their link-up play and movement off the ball will progress as their familiarity increases. It is important to note that two of those four players mentioned are completely new this season, and Katai only joined last year. It takes time to find comfort levels in new countries, new leagues and new teams, and the Fire have shown that they are getting better as the season progresses.
Chicago already possesses one of the best offenses in Major League Soccer, and with more time and continued health, they will only get better and more creative. The rest of the league should remain on high notice.