With the signing of Hungarian international forward and Designated Player Nemanja Nikolic now official, Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic has secured the man he was after to lead his club's line in 2017.
The former Legia Warsaw man -- who delivered 41 league goals in 56 appearances over two seasons -- will arrive in Chicago from the Polish capital as someone whose skills Paunovic has been familiar with for quite some time.
“We know Nikolic from a long time ago," Paunovic said, "because he started his early career in Serbia and then he moved to Hungary. He was always followed by (Serbia’s) national team, but finally, as he has roots in Hungarian regions, he decided to play for Hungary. Anyway, he was a player that we always followed.”
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Nikolic's gaudy goal-scoring numbers speak for themselves, a testament to the intelligent runs and clinical finishing that have made him a regular for his national team, for which he twice appeared at UEFA EURO 2016. But what's also been key for Paunovic in his pursuit of the soon-to-be 29-year-old (his birthday is on Dec. 31) is a desire to be a team contributor that matches his desire to find net.
“His quality is scoring goals and assisting, but then he’s a man that can participate in both phases of team play,” Paunovic said. “He’s very good in all phases of the game. Defensively, he helps the team to recover the ball as soon as possible in order that we can control the game and create opportunities for our team to win. Sometimes he will benefit from team play and he will be just the executor, but sometimes he’s capable of creating his own situations in the game, the opportunities 1v1, and scoring his own goals.”
WATCH: Nemanja Nikolic Highlights
In Nikolic, Paunovic also has added a player who's fully invested in his craft, as evidenced by the emotional sideline display following his final appearance for Legia Warsaw on Sunday. The striker has bought into the vision laid out to him by Paunovic, who was candid with Nikolic about the challenges he would face in transitioning to a new league and country. On the other end of the conversation, however, there was little hesitation.
“I told him, ‘Listen, you have to know that this is not for everyone,’” Paunovic said. “‘It’s very tough. We have to build the culture and the team and bring the team where it belongs, which is on top of the league.’ I told him, ‘You have to know there are a lot of challenges and everything.’ When I was done with my speech, he was like, ‘I want to be there. That’s what I’ve always wanted. I always wanted challenges. I want to help you. I want to help the team. Everything you told me…that’s what I’m looking for.’
“He wants to compete against Villa," Paunovic continued. "He wants to compete against Larin. He wants to compete against Piatti, Wright-Phillips and all the other big guys, the best scorers that we have in the league. That’s what we want. We want guys who have the highest expectations and work hard to get there. He’s capable of pushing himself very, very far, but also he’s capable of influencing others to do the same.”