There was a great moment during Saturday’s 4-0 rout of FC Dallas. CJ Sapong had loped forward to steal the ball and push it one side of the sprawling Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. As he continued his run into the box to apply the finish, Nemanja Nikolic was racing to the same spot, with all the predatory instincts of a natural poacher.
For a nanosecond it looked like the two might collide, like two fielders exclusively focused on the same dropping baseball — they’re strikers after all, and an open goal is a sight that can obscure the rest of the world. But in that next split second Nikolic raised his hands to clearly abandon his claim, and Sapong swept home for what would turn out to be the game-winning goal.
“He did the work,” says Nikolic, simply, as he recalls the moment after Tuesday’s training session. “Honestly, every striker has it in his head to score easy goals. In the first moment as I ran in I thought 'I’m going to score,' but in the moment when I saw CJ’s efforts and everything he’d done to read the play, it was all on CJ, and I put my hands up to show him he had it and he didn’t need to rush. That’s why I say, it just shows that you just have to work for the team, and at this time of year it doesn’t matter who scores, it’s just important that the Fire wins.”
For his part, Sapong recognizes the gesture:
“The thing I really like about Niko is, the team is first. He wants to score his goals, obviously, but he wants the team to succeed above all. And if that means I’m running down the field and he has a chance to tap in, and I’m running toward it, he’s able to understand that I put the work in, and able to back off and let me score that goal. I think that little cordial moment speaks volumes about who he is as a player and as a person.”
Looking at the stats, both players sit on 12 goals for the season with three games remaining, and both are appreciative not only of a growing understanding between each other — one they’ve had to learn with no pre-season together (Sapong arrived a couple of days before the season started) — but of the split narrative around how those goal tallies came together. Since scoring in his debut against LA Galaxy in the season opener, Sapong has been contributing at a steady clip all season, while Nikolic had a quiet start to the year and was even out of the starting line up for a period of weeks before hitting a rich vein of goalscoring form as the team has rounded out of summer. Saturday’s game was something of an exception for the year in featuring goals from both players.
Some of that’s down to differing styles. As Sapong puts it, “It’s rare for both of us to be shut down. If I get shut down, more from a physical standpoint, I believe that Niko’s a savvy enough striker that he gets into the right positions where they might forget him. And if they’re paying too much attention to him, I can sneak in and provide the physical push.”
But there’s a mental side too, with both men acknowledging the unique pressure on strikers. Sapong points out that, “They say, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, right? And if you see another striker scoring goals, even if it’s someone on your team scoring, it can make you look at yourself and become a little insecure. But with Niko, team first.”
Nikolic, meanwhile, says, “It’s important to have many players who can score. So you don’t have too much pressure on one player. If he has a bad day or a bad game, another player can jump in and take the pressure from a couple of players. So, it’s good that, week by week, me or CJ, or other strikers, start to score goals, give assists.” True to his take, Nikolic follows this with a deep list of qualities offered by every player on the field, to emphasize the team contribution to the playoff push.
With that priority in mind, neither man is thinking about who finishes as top scorer. Nikolic is emphatic in simply stating that “at this time of year it doesn’t matter who scores, it’s just important that the Fire wins.” Meanwhile Sapong, looking back at that moment on Saturday, where both players were converging on the same open goal, has a similar take on what matters:
“If he had scored it, I might have been salty for a minute, but at the same time, we still get the three points. The goal numbers are great, but wins are more important and playoff soccer is most important if we can will it. So whatever it takes for us to win as a team, that’s what I’m willing to do and I know that’s what he’s willing to do as well.”