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Anatomy of a Goal: Nemanja Nikolic easily intercepts Zack Steffen

This week, we examine Nikolic’s game winner and the breakdown of communication that lead to this Crew SC blunder.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Anatomy of a Goal, where each week we dissect one goal (or near goal) from Columbus Crew SC‘s previous match.

For match six of the 2018 MLS Season, we take a look at Nemanja Nikolic’ s 27th minute goal that put the Chicago Fire up 1-0 and was the only goal in their win over Crew SC on Saturday.

Here’s a look at the finish from the Chicago striker.

While Columbus had created multiple chances up to this point, the Fire’s defensive pressure had caused multiple problems for the Black & Gold.

In the third minute, Steffen was forced to make a diving stop on an Alan Gordon pass to Nikolic off of a giveaway by Josh Williams, which would have resulted in a goal but for Steffen’s heroics. In the 11th minute, a Wil Trapp pass from the back was intercepted by Nikolic, setting off a Dax McCarty breakaway that was thwarted by an errant pass from the Chicago midfielder.

The Fire’s game winner begins with Crew SC’s captain picking up the ball in the Chicago attacking half. Trapp is faced with an organized defensive block but still has three options with a pass up the sideline to Pedro Santos, a pass into space for Gyasi Zardes or to carry the ball toward the Chicago goal.

Dax McCarty quickly applies pressure on Trapp, cutting off his angle to Zardes. Under pressure, Trapp plays a quick pass to Santos. Marked by Bastian Schweinsteiger, Santos carries the ball back toward his own half.

Schweinsteiger applies hard pressure to Santos, but the Columbus winger is able to break free.

Having lost the World Cup winner, Santos pings a ball back toward Jonathan Mensah.

As Santos’ long pass is corralled by Jonathan, let’s take a look at Artur’s positioning. The Black & Gold midfielder is highlighted on the left side of the screen, and Trapp is just above him. With the ball played back to a center back, both central midfielders should drop back into a support position to provide an outlet to Jonathan.

Typically, Artur and Trapp alternate positioning, switching in and out of the spot that splits the two center backs. Trapp occupies this position more often than Artur, but it is common to see the duo exchange rolls, dropping back and linking to the rest of the midfield. Trapp has had to cover much more distance (he was about eight yards closer to the Chicago goal than Artur when Santos played his long pass) so Artur should be quickly dropping back to provide an outlet for Jonathan.

However, Artur stays in the attacking half and Trapp quickly drops back to provide support. Jonathan has more than 10 yards of free space, so he is able to carry the ball forward.

As Trapp travels toward his center backs, notice the beginnings of the familiar shape with Jonathan and Williams split to the wide and a center midfielder (here Trapp) dropping in between.

The above image is where the play starts to break down. For reference, I have used dotted lines to show what typically happens in the Gregg Berhalter system.

On the top left of the image, Harrison Afful should drop back and check to a potential pass from Jonathan. If that pass is not made, Afful should cycle back up the field and attempt to draw Gordon, at the end of Afful’s dotted line, with him.

As Jonathan carries the ball forward, the best option for him is to make a quick pass up to Trapp. After making that pass, Jonathan should move to a wide and prepare to receive a drop from Trapp or a pass from Zack Steffen should the captain play a drop to his goalkeeper.

Trapp should move in position to receive a pass from Jonathan or drop level with the center-back.

Williams is already in position to receive a pass and move the ball up the field.

Instead, Jonathan plays a long pass on the ground toward Santos. Seeing this pass, Afful moves back toward the Chicago goal. Trapp cuts toward the ball, but slows up his run.

Santos is immediately under pressure and hits a one-time pass back to Steffen.

With Steffen on the ball and lots of space ahead of him, Crew SC have a chance to reset the play. Jonathan and Williams both get into a wide position. Trapp or Artur (not in the frame but assumedly near midfield) should fill into the space between the center backs.

That doesn’t happen. Trapp can be seen here pointing to someone, and gesturing for either a pass or a teammate to move into the vacant space.

With no pressure, Steffen plays a quick pass over to Jonathan.

Having received Steffen’s pass, Jonathan can take the ball a few yards up the field before being pressured by Gordon, who immediately heads toward the Columbus center back.

Trapp continues to gesticulate toward the center of the field, either suggesting a pass or calling for someone to vacate that empty space. Trapp himself should likely should have moved to occupy that space by now.

As Gordon arrives, Jonathan drops the ball back to Steffen. Having sensed that help will not arrive, Trapp sprints toward the middle of his center backs.

Notice the shape of the Black & Gold. Rather than their typical triangle with two center-backs and a midfielder, Crew SC find themselves in a square with empty space in the middle.

From the other touchline, we can finally see where Artur is as Steffen awaits Jonathan’s pass. It seems odd that Artur would be so far up the field while his goalkeeper is receiving a pass in his own goal box. My guess is that Trapp’s gesticulations were for Artur to fill in that space between the center backs.

Federico Higuain is clearing out in an effort to take a defender away from the ball.

Here is the view of the field in front of Steffen as he prepares to hit a one-touch pass. Gordon is providing pressure just to his right (the image’s left). From the above image, Steffen can clearly see that there are no Columbus players in the space in front of him (where he will place his ill-fated pass).

Obviously, Steffen should have hit the ball almost anywhere else (even 50 yards up the field). Maybe he intended to make a much harder pass up the field.

However, and to Steffen’s credit, much of the Berhalter system relies on playing simple passes to areas where teammates should be. One of the center midfielders certainly should have been right in front of Steffen. Of course, Steffen should have seen that no one was there, but the system typically dictates that someone would be there to receive that exact pass.

Steffen hits a one-touch pass as Trapp desperately sprints to get into position.

Nikolic recognizes where Steffen’s pass is heading and quickly sprints to cut off the passing lane.

Nikolic easily beats Trapp to the pass.

Chicago’s striker carries the ball just to Steffen’s right, and fires a shot . . .

. . . into the back of the net.


  1. As easy as it is to blame Steffen for the pass, this goal was the result of a breakdown in communication by Trapp and Artur.
  2. Either Trapp or Artur should have been between the center backs and right ahead of Steffen, ready to receive that pass.
  3. While Steffen could have cleared the ball down the field, he was let down by his captain and Artur.