Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic closes in on MLS Golden Boot with 3-goal lead

The Fire’s rebound season has had many highlights. One of them is a record number of goals for forward Nemanja Nikolic.

Nikolic, acquired in the offseason from Polish club Legia Warsaw, enters the regular-season finale Sunday at Houston with a league-leading 24 goals, three ahead of Portland’s Diego Valeri. Assuming he isn’t overtaken, Nikolic will become the first Fire player to win the MLS Golden Boot, in addition to becoming the club’s first to top 20 goals in an MLS season.

Nikolic also is within three goals of tying the league record for goals in a season, but that doesn’t seem like his top priority. After tallying a hat trick in the Fire’s 3-2 comeback victory Sunday over Philadelphia, Nikolic’s mind was on team goals.

“For a couple of months, everybody spoke about [setting the league record],” Nikolic told reporters after the game. “Now in the last period, I think a lot of people were not sure that I can achieve this until now. Three goals is too much and is also close, but I think it will be really important to win against Houston. If it needs to be 1-0, OK, just to win there and try to achieve second place. It would be really good if we could rest a little bit more than the other opponents.

The Fire's Nemanja Nikolic leads MLS with 24 goals. | Rafael Alvarez, Chicago Fire

“Of course, like always, I will try to score goals.”

The Fire, who are heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, enter the game one point behind New York City FC for second place in the Eastern Conference and one ahead of Atlanta. If the Fire win, they will assure themselves a home playoff game and could even jump into second place and earn a bye to the conference semifinals. A loss could send the Fire on the road and make their run at the MLS Cup more complicated.

“[The game] is very important, obviously,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said Sunday. “We can see that in our case, and in the case of a lot of teams playing at home means a lot and it’s a very important advantage. You never know, but it’s important. We at least believe, and when you believe, that’s what’s going to happen, and we are going to work towards trying to get the necessary points so we can play at home in the first playoff round.”

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