For the Fire to make a late and perhaps unlikely run to the playoffs, they were going to need Nemanja Nikolic to rediscover his scoring touch.
And that’s what he has done.
Nikolic has connected in four consecutive matches, and the Fire are one point back of an Eastern Conference playoff spot. There were doubts about Nikolic’s future with the Fire after he got off to a slow start and seemingly lost his starting spot up front to CJ Sapong.
Now, coach Veljko Paunovic is raising different questions about Nikolic. Like whether he can jump from 50 regular-season goals with the Fire and eventually surpass Ante Razov (76) for the most in team history.
“He has to get the No. 1, that’s the thing,” Paunovic said after the Fire’s victory against the Philadelphia Union last Saturday. “I believe that he will achieve it. I strongly believe in everyone in that locker room. I think Niko proved that in our history of our club, not only was he reliable, he was very, very productive.”
That assumes Nikolic returns to the Fire in 2020. His status will be one of the team’s most interesting offseason questions. One thing that isn’t in question is what Nikolic means to the team when he’s clicking.
Entering the match Saturday at New England (9-9-8, 35 points), Nikolic looks closer to the player who won the 2017 Golden Boot with 24 goals and then connected 15 times in 2018. He has scored 11 goals this season and five in the last four games. The Fire have taken nine of 12 possible points.
“When I [didn’t] score in the beginning of the season, I [had] the opportunity almost every game,” Nikolic said. “In that time, the ball doesn’t want to go inside the net. The life of a striker, they will all tell you the same thing: Sometimes you have periods where everything is going in, and sometimes you feel that nothing wants to go inside the net.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Fire’s improvement coincides with Nikolic’s.
“It is huge. Super happy that Niko has scored in the last [four] games,” midfielder Brandt Bronico said. “He is starting to catch fire again, and that’s what you need out of a player like that. He’s a really good finisher, and he’s getting the job done for us now.”
The Fire (8-11-9, 33 points) need that to continue.
Despite being one point out of the playoffs, the math doesn’t favor the Fire. On Thursday, FiveThirtyEight.com gave them a 23 percent chance to make the postseason. Four of their last six games are on the road, where the Fire have won once this season.
“What I said to the guys is, ‘Every game is the final, and New England is the biggest final, probably, that we’re going to have until we really play in [a] final,’” Paunovic said. “But it’s game by game and staying focused and committed 100 percent.”
NOTE: MLS added a game to attacker Aleksandar Katai’s suspension. Katai, who was ejected from the game Aug. 14 at Portland, will miss the match Saturday.