Back in August, 2017, Fire striker Nemanja Nikolić was in the thick of his Golden Boot-winning debut season in Major League Soccer when he joined the league's biggest names at the MLS All-Star Game right here in Chicago. On the day that he and his MLS teammates were set to face Real Madrid, Nikolic shared a clever selfie snapped in the locker room at Soldier Field with one of the most recognizable names and faces in American soccer:
As it turns out, Colorado Rapids goalkeeper and U.S. Men's National Team great Tim Howard was one of the big names that Nikolić was most excited to meet during his 2017 MLS All-Star experience. That's because Nikolić was well-aware of the Hungarian familial roots of Howard, whose mother was born in Hungary before emigrating to the United States as a child. Howard, born in New Jersey, holds dual citizenship with the U.S. and Hungary and learned a great deal about Hungarian culture from his mother and grandparents.
Nikolić -- himself the son of a Hungarian mother and Serbian father -- watched from afar as Howard became a household name in the English Premier League while manning the net for Manchester United and Everton. On Saturday, the two will go head-to-head for a final time as Howard, who earlier this year announced his intentions to retire following the 2019 MLS season, visits SeatGeek Stadium with his Colorado Rapids side (12 PM, ESPN+).
"Everybody knows that he played in one of the best leagues in the world for many years, so much before I came here I knew that he had some Hungarian blood," Nikolić said this week of the U.S. goalkeeping icon. "At MLS All-Star I wanted to have a picture with him, I think he's an absolute legend of the sport on and off the pitch."
Earlier in the 2017 season, Howard had the chance to experience firsthand how lethal Nikolić can be in front of goal. On May 17, Nikolić netted a brace in the Fire's 3-0 home win over the Rapids, putting one past Howard in each half to reach 10 goals scored in his first 11 games played in MLS.
When the two convened under more friendly circumstances at MLS All-Star later that year, they were able to connect over their shared heritage.
"I was new in the league in that moment, I don’t know if he knew I was from Hungary," Nikolić said. "I introduced myself and said from where I am, and he immediately knew (the place). He told me he does not speak the Hungarian language, it’s very difficult, but if I remember he said he was there a couple of times but of course he has appreciation for the country."
Fast-forward to present day, where Nikolić enters Saturday's clash with Colorado having scored a goal in each of his last two games (in addition to helping force a New York Red Bulls own goal on March 30). He’s now increased his career goal haul in MLS to 41 -- seven shy of Chris Rolfe for second on the Chicago Fire's all-time ledger. When Howard and the winless Rapids visit Saturday, Nikolić and the Fire will be looking to extend their unbeaten streak to four games with a full three points, prior to embarking on a three-match road swing.
While Nikolić will set aside his admiration for Howard for 90 minutes on the weekend, he has nothing but good wishes for the goalkeeping great as he brings to a close his decorated 21-year playing career.
"Big name, amazing person," Nikolić said of Howard. "He's had an amazing career and international career and I'm sure he will be incredible in his next chapter after playing. I wish him good luck with what is next."