It is clear Nemanja Nikolic wanted something new when he left Legia Warsaw, the reigning Polish champions, in December of 2016. The Hungarian International had just won the Ekstraklasa league and Polish cup double in Legia’s centennial season. Individually he won the 2015-16 golden boot and player of the year award. The 29 year old Serbian born striker departed Poland at the top, midseason, to join the Veljko Paunovic led Chicago Fire. Nikolic says “he could see the Fire’s motivation to improve” and committed his future to playing in the windy city. I spoke with him the night before his week seven MLS player of the week earning performance against the New England Revolution.
Nemanja Nikolic: Chicago’s Forward Thinking Striker
The new Chicago Fire goalscorer was the first in the series of high profile acquisitions the Men In Red made while building the 2017 squad. I asked if he knew there would be more signings to follow his. “I was the first person who signed for Chicago” says Nikolic. “[Coach Paunovic] told me they were close to signing Juninho at the time. But I found out about Dax from the internet, they didn’t tell me about signing Dax. But yes, about Bastian he told me they wanted to sign Bastian Schweinsteiger” Nikolic admitted.
Finding Something New
Nemanja had learned that Legia was going to sell him after his tremendous debut season in Poland. “I won everything [at Legia] so I started thinking, what was the best decision for me. I want something new in my career. After Legia I didn’t want to fight in Europe and fight to stay in a league or play for some team in the middle of the table.” Hull City and Reading were reportedly amongst the clubs the Fire beat out for Nikolic’s services.
Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic’s ability to articulate his vision sounds to have been key to Nikolic’s high profile signing. “I wanted to find something new,” he says. “When Coach Veljko called me on the phone I spoke with him so much. The decision was really difficult for me. Because lots of thinking of what I want. I felt that Chicago didn’t make good results but I felt when I spoke with coach that they are motivated and the team will be completely new. Lots of players left the team, and they bring good players here. Juninho won 3 MLS titles, they bring in Dax who was the captain of New York and appears for national team. They bring in Bastian who has won everything in his career. It was [a] good signal that Chicago wants to build something.” Let that comment sink in Fire fans, a player at the top of his european soccer career was convinced to come join the rock bottom Fire of the MLS. A move both bold and brave of the player and brilliant from the Fire front office.
A New Team Coming Together
The 2017 Chicago Fire squad is still very new to each other. Fire signings Dax McCarty missed time with USMNT camp duty and Bastian Schweinsteiger has only been with the team a few weeks. I asked Nemanja; realistically how far can a week of training go towards forming a team bond? “The beginning was a bit difficult with the new team [because] everybody needs time to know each other better and better” answered the UEFA Champions League goal scorer. “[The] midfielders need to work better together and learn each other, I need to know the movement of my teammates better and who play behind me on the pitch.” The Fire forward continued: “With all these players I think will make a really good relationship on the pitch. We are much better [now] and learning each other, you can start to see with the goal I scored against Columbus with the ball Dax gave me, fantastic ball between the defenders. I think day by day we get better [and] it helps a lot that we are learning every day together.”
Relishing in a Challenge
In speaking to the married father of two, it became clear that Nemanja Nikolic relishes in taking on challenges. Both on and off the field, the striker has a self proclaimed “curiosity to learn.” The man is soundly determined to work towards what he wants to achieve. The Fire forward has chosen to learn a new league, in a new country, with a rebuilding club. “I really believe in myself and in the work that I make here in Chicago and I know the goals will come for sure. In five games I have two goals, I have had more opportunities to score but that is ok. Of course i will work hard to achieve lots of goals for Chicago. I have teammates behind me who will give me very good balls to create me chances to score so I’m not afraid about this. I think confidence is important for a player. Every goal makes confidence bigger for you but also important when you do score you believe in yourself and in what you do.”
Chicago’s new number 23 challenges himself off the field as well. Nemanja is currently working on becoming fluent in 4 languages. Already a speaker of Serbian and Hungarian, the striker is enrolled in both English and Spanish classes after training each week. “I want to improve my English and make it perfect, I understand the Spanish language not so perfectly but I have a curiosity to learn. In a few months I will be better at the languages. That is why I am going to classes every week two times a week.”
The Hungarian striker spoke excitedly about learning the new languages and the culture of his new surroundings. Nemanja also offered an interesting take on expectations of international players moving to a new country. “Its important to learn the language in a new country, it is the first step. I think this needs to be rules for the new players who come to new country, learn the english as soon as possible. I think Its the minimum to ask international players when they come to come to a new country.”
Hungry for Goals
Even before scoring his brace against New England, Nemanja seemed to be feeling adapted to his new situation. I asked the three-time Hungarian league scoring champion if he had a target number of goals for this season. He wouldn’t give me a number, but he did give me a very confident response.
“Yes, I have [a target of goals]” the Fire forward says. “I like to score goals as this is the job of the striker. Every striker is like this i think. Everybody is hungry for the goals. Everybody wants to achieve more and more. I never say the numbers, how many goals I want. Each game I go to to play I go into with the same attitude with same goals, this is to score or give passes to teammates. We have lots of games until the end of the season. I will have opportunities to score more goals.” The new Man In Red added that “The beginning is important for new players, how they will adapt to the country and league. I think this is behind me. I have success with this. I adapt really fast on the league and the weather here in Chicago and now can focus. And now my family is with me most importantly, I can focus now just on the pitch, on the game and whats is in front of us. So I want to score and achieve lots of goals but I never say the specific number, I don’t want to say because I never say this.”
From one conversation, I learned that Nemanja Nikolic has the ability to focus ahead on his next challenge. The ability to not linger in past accomplishments and to trust in his work to achieve future success. When asked about what he misses since moving to Chicago he hesitates before he answers; “I leave a lot of my friends. In free time the family we go home and meet with friends but I try not to think about this and focus on the work now. The most important thing is where you live. Where you move. Warsaw was a fantastic city, lots of opportunities to fill free time but I’m happy I’m here and I try to enjoy the time in Chicago.”
The 2017 MLS week seven Player of the Week award winner now enters a new phase of his introduction to american pro sports: a cross country road trip. The next three weeks of spring sees the Fire travel up to Canada, to the east coast and back across again to the west coast. A challenging stretch that will feature Nemanja Nikolic’s first visits to Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.