Twelve goals, five assists and a persistent feeling that the spectacular was always just a moment away.
That’s the brief summary of what Aleksandar Katai produced during his inaugural Chicago Fire campaign in 2018. Now, expectations are high for his second season, which officially begins with Saturday’s 2019 MLS regular season opener against the LA Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park (7 p.m. CT, FS1).
However, fresh off of scoring three goals across five Fire preseason friendlies, Katai is taking a level-headed approach to the Club’s upcoming regular season campaign.
“We are doing really good so far,” he said. “We just need to keep going in this way and we’ll see how it will be in the season. I hope it will continue the same in the league when it starts.”
Katai’s first half finish helped the Fire secure a 1-1 draw against Spanish side Atlético Madrid B in the team’s preseason opener on Jan. 30. He then showed flashes of his 2018 form with a curling upper-90 effort from outside the 18-yard box against CF Fuenlabrada in Fire’s final match in Madrid.
Exhibition goals don’t ensure regular season success, though, as Katai is quick to note.
“It’s different when you play friendly games and when the season starts,” he said. “It’s a completely different game. I don’t want to make guarantees, but I just know that we will give the best and we will see.”
The challenge ahead for Katai is to build upon both a promising preseason and a memorable first year in MLS. The 28-year-old burst onto the scene as a league debutante in 2018, arriving on loan from La Liga side Deportivo Alaves in early February. After netting eight goals and three assists by the end of June, Katai made his stay in Chicago permanent by inking a Designated Player contract on July 11.
“I think his adaptation was really good,” Fire forward Nemanja Nikolić said. “He had a good season last year individually speaking in his first year in MLS. I think that the second year will be much, much better for him and I hope the team also.”
The fantastic became Katai’s forte at times throughout his first season in Chicago. The Serbian international announced his presence with a goal in his first appearance for the Club – a 4-3 opening day defeat to Sporting Kansas City – before making heads turn in April with a volley against the New York Red Bulls that was nothing short of seismic.
League analysts took notice, too. Katai was nominated for MLS’ Goal of the Week award five separate times in 2018, and won the award for a silky match-winning near-post finish against NYCFC on June 30.
As Fire play-by-play announcer Dan Kelly alluded to following Katai’s calm preseason finish against FC Cincinnati in the 2019 Carolina Challenge Cup last week, at times he just makes it look easy.
“It’s not easy,” he laughed. “After every goal I feel very great, but it’s not easy.”
“His skills are amazing,” Nikolić added. “He can shoot with his left or right leg. This is what we need to take advantage of this season. If he will be mentally and physically on the top, he can be one of the best players in the league.”
The Fire will be leaning on Katai to continue raising his production on the wing opposite new addition Przemysław Frankowski and amid a reinforced attacking unit that looks primed to find the net in 2019.
“[Katai] is our key player, and I’m waiting for a lot of good things for him to bring to the team,” Nikolić said. “He has big potential.”
With Saturday’s season opener looming, Katai is content to continue letting his on-field play do the talking.
“I will try every year to be better and better than the last year. Of course, the first thing is for the Club to have much better results than last year. For myself, I hope the same.”