Nemanja Nikolic may not have the star power of previous Designated Player targets Didier Drogba and Jermaine Jones, but the Chicago Fire are fully expecting him to make game-changing contributions on the field all the same.
That is why the Fire broke open their piggy bank for him, why they pursued him for much of this year, and why they made him such a big part of their vision for a more successful future.
The Fire announced on Tuesday that they signed Nikolic, a 28-year-old Hungarian striker, to a DP deal that runs through the 2019 season. The move, which included paying Polish powerhouse Legia Warsaw a seven-figure transfer fee, did not come with much fanfare from MLS and Fire supporters given that Nikolic is a relatively unknown commodity on this side of the pond.
Nonetheless, the Fire firmly believe that he is worth every penny they spent given his track record as a goal-scorer and winner.
“Nemanja was one of our top priorities this offseason and a player we had been tracking for the better part of seven to eight months,” said Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez on Tuesday. “He represents one of the types of game-breakers that we sought in the offseason. He is a champion – having won titles in Poland and Hungary – he is a four-time golden boot winner, and one of the most prolific scorers in recent years in Europe, a player whose character is unimpeachable.
“He has an insatiable desire to score goals and to win. We are thrilled to add not only his talent, but his character and personality to our locker room. We feel that this is the first step in an offseason that we have carefully orchestrated and feel very good about securing his services in advance of the holidays.”
If Christmas came early for the Fire, it did not come cheap. Rodriguez did not divulge the exact details of the transfer fee that the club paid Legia Warsaw, but reports in Poland have stated that it was worth approximately $3 million.
For a struggling club that has been viewed as cheap in recent years given its lack of spending, that is a significant financial commitment. It also resembles the type of interest that the Fire had for Drogba and Jones back when the team was hoping to land their services, and before other MLS sides came and pried the veteran duo away from the Fire’s grasp at the last second.
Like officiating calls or ball bounces, things tend to even out and go back in your favor over time and that was the case here for the Fire. Nikolic’s impressive scoring rate, which included him scoring 41 goals in league play during the past two seasons, had put him on the radar of several other clubs across the world. English Premier League side Hull City and several teams in Chinese’s first division were reportedly eyeing Nikolic.
Ultimately, the Fire won out on a player in his prime.
“There was many other suitors for his services and many other offers that Legia Warsaw had received,” said Rodriguez. “In the end, we are privileged and consider it an honor that Nemanja selected us as much as we selected him.”
How the Fire came across Nikolic in Poland might spark curiosity in even the most indifferent fan in Chicago given the relative lack of players that come to MLS directly from there. The club’s brass identified him, however, after watching games from that country while scouting another player. The Fire ended up seeing and liking the aggressive and attack-minded way Legia Warsaw played and found themselves routinely impressed by Nikolic.
They were in fact so impressed by his goal-scoring prowess and play that they eventually sent scout Matt Pearson and head coach Veljko Paunovic to see the forward up close and in person, and what the two Fire honchos saw in their separate trips abroad only strengthened the belief that Nikolic was someone they had to get.
“The live reports married what we felt we had been observing through video and through following full games on television and online,” said Rodriguez. “Our character reports were very positive, and then Pauno’s conversation with Nemanja, and mine, really convinced us of the character of the individual. This was a significant signing.”
The Fire certainly need Nikolic to show he is worth all the time, effort and resources they spent on him. The team is coming off dreadful back-to-back seasons in which it finished with the worst record in MLS, and needs to get back to winning ways in order to reinvigorate a fan base and city that have grown skeptical about the direction the Fire are heading in.
As far as the Fire are concerned, however, the future is looking brighter than it did a couple days ago. They now have a forward in his prime that knows how to score goals, and that they see as an integral part of their plans for years to come.
“I think what Nemanja brings to us now is that player who at any moment, with the slightest break or opportunity, can find the back of the net,” said Rodriguez. “We believe he will continue to do so and we believe that will give our team a level of confidence and belief that may have been lacking ever so slightly last year.”
“We feel really good today about what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he added.