Why didn’t the Fire play Luka Stojanovic more this season?

Despite a knack for scoring, Stojanovic has started just 15 times on a team that has struggled to convert chances.

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Luka Stojanovic celebrates after scoring against Inter Miami earlier this year.

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Luka Stojanovic has become a fan favorite, providing some of the best moments of an otherwise dreary Fire season. His long-range game-winning strike at FC Cincinnati is the Fire’s top goal of the year, and Stojanovic’s eight tallies are tied for the team lead.

Yet Stojanovic hasn’t been a mainstay in the Fire’s opening 11. Stojanovic has started just 15 times and played 1,346 minutes. Former coach Raphael Wicky was hesitant to start Stojanovic, and interim coach Frank Klopas has been the same way.

So that leads to an obvious question: Should Stojanovic have played more?

Klopas said one reason Stojanovic hasn’t been an automatic starter was the 3-5-2 formation the Fire used for a portion of the season, an alignment that requires midfielders to cover a lot of ground. Instead, Stojanovic is better suited to being a true central attacking midfielder who finds space between opposing defenders.

But still . . . shouldn’t Stojanovic have gotten more minutes?

“When he gets opportunities, he’s always been dangerous,” Klopas said. “So, yeah, you can have an argument about that for sure.”

While there’s probably not an argument more Stojanovic would’ve led the Fire to the playoffs — they still had too many holes and were too far from postseason contenders for one player to make that big a difference — he has been a consistent finisher. And with Designated Player Robert Beric struggling until it was too late and Chinonso Offor getting acclimated to the league, the Fire needed that scoring touch.

Coming off a knee injury that cost him all but 61 minutes of his 2020 season, Stojanovic was ready to start the 2021 opener and even bagged the Fire’s second goal of the year in what ended up a 2-2 draw with the eventual Supporters’ Shield-winning New England Revolution. Though his free kick was misplayed by goalkeeper John McCarthy, Stojanovic was credited with the decisive goal in the Fire’s 1-0 victory against Inter Miami on May 22 that was their first victory of the season.

Those highlights, however, didn’t make Stojanovic a full-time starter, even if 2021 has been the best season of his career.

“Any time on the pitch, I use to show myself to fans, to staff, also to myself and to my family,” Stojanovic said. “And I don’t know exactly how [many] minutes, but I think it’s so far the best season I would say.”

Perhaps the Stojanovic paradox was best summed up by fellow midfielder Alvaro Medran after the FC Cincinnati match. He was happy for Stojanovic, praising the strike as a golazo and calling his teammate a good scorer.

That’s not where Medran stopped talking about Stojanovic, who played only four minutes that night.

“I think sometimes he has to help a little bit more in other ways,” Medran said through a translator. “Sometimes you see what you see externally but you don’t see what’s going on internally. So I think sometimes he can help in other ways. But I’m happy for him and for that goal today and especially because it gave us the victory.”

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