Baller on a budget: Nemanja Nikolic is the best forward in MLS right now

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Be honest: Did you see this coming? No, you didn't. Forget Villa, Larin or Giovinco - Nikolic is on fire at the moment.

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A few months ago I spoke to Peter Wilt, one of the founding executives of the Chicago Fire and a longtime presence in American professional soccer, for a piece on his current work in and around the NASL. Despite his departure from the club in in 2005, he remains a keen Fire fan and during our conversation took care to note, with approval, the forward Chicago had just signed as a Designated Player a week or two prior.

“[Nemanja] Nikolic is going to be a stud, as long as you can get him the ball,” predicted Wilt. “He's a classic finisher and I think he's going to do really well in MLS.”

Some five months later, Nikolic sits atop the MLS Golden Boot table with 10 goals in his first 11 MLS games, four of them bagged in the past week as the Fire definitively thumped Seattle, then Colorado by three-goal margins at Toyota Park. A side mired in woe for most of the past decade now sits firmly in the Eastern Conference’s playoff positions with a winning record, 18 points from those 11 games, an undefeated home mark and legitimate entertainment value for fans and neutrals alike.

The statement sounds a great deal less controversial now than it might’ve a week ago, but it has to be said nonetheless: Nikolic is quite clearly the best striker in MLS at present.

The sample size for Nikolic is relatively small with a shade under 1,000 minutes played, but there’s little obvious inflation or distortion in those numbers. At 0.96 goals per 90 minutes, the Serbian-born Hungary international is averaging effectively a goal per game played, with a shot completion rate of 30.3 percent and only one goal scored from the penalty spot. His roaring start to life in MLS ranks among the best in league history, putting him in the company of some pretty illustrious strikers of the past and present.

The league’s video compilation of Nikolic’s 10 strikes to date hints at the variety of his work, and the diversity of weapons the Fire have arrayed around him.

He has played the No. 9 part, like the firm downward header he applied to a Brandon Vincent cross from deep after drifting in behind Rapids center back Jared Watts on Wednesday. He’s gotten out on the run, finishing clinical counterattack combinations with the jet-heeled David Accam. He’s cleaned up scrap. He will no doubt latch onto a range of midfield service from Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho in the months and years ahead.

Anyone who says they expected to see Nikolic's name ahead of the likes of David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Cyle Larin on the MLS scoring charts at this point is probably fibbing. But with Chicago’s rebuilding plans finally bearing fruit, it’s actually a pretty logical, linear progression from Wilt’s remarks in December to the current state of affairs.

Nikolic’s success is simultaneously a reminder of the league’s increased spending muscle in the global transfer market and its tried-and-true recipes of the past. Remember, this is a player with UEFA Champions League pedigree, one who scored 55 goals in 84 appearances at this last stop, Polish top-flight heavyweights Legia Warsaw, including eight in 21 matches of European (UCL and Europa) competition.

The Fire reportedly plunked down a $3 million transfer fee just for the right to pay him in the vicinity of $1.9 million per season, according to MLS Players Union documents. That salary ranks 16th in the league overall, and in Chicago is second only to Schweinsteiger’s $5.4 million (or thereabouts) package.

Nikolic also sits in the “baller-on-a-budget” sweet spot that smart, pragmatic MLS execs love. Now 29, he’s proved himself at a high level, albeit just far enough out of the brightest limelights to sidestep too high of a salary demand.

Just as Wilt once scoured Eastern Europe to gird the Fire’s first-ever roster with Peter Nowak, Jerzy Podrozny, Roman Kosecki and Lubos Kubik, Nikolic was well-suited for blue-collar Chicagoland, said to be the largest Polish metropolis on earth outside of Warsaw. The missteps of more recent Fire front offices have inevitably inspired a default skepticism – including yours truly – towards the club’s moves. But they got this one right, even if Nikolic’s finishing rates regress towards the mean in the games to come.

Fire supporters may take the most encouragement from the unfussy optimism of the player himself. In Wednesday’s postgame locker room, Nikolic was asked if he’d been surprised by his fast start in MLS.

“No,” answered Nikolic. “Are you?”

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