By Jake Meister
After finishing preseason training in Tampa and Los Angeles, the Chicago Fire began preparations for their season-opening match Sunday against the defending Major League Soccer Champions the Seattle Sounders.
New head coach Raphaël Wicky said he couldn’t see much of a change in the players’ responsiveness at their first practice back home. They have continued to go about their training prior to opening day as planned, but have had to adjust to a brisk windchill hitting their faces instead of balmy Florida or California breezes.
“The team worked hard,” Wicky said. “They listened to what we said [and] they tried to put the ideas we gave them on the field.”
With a slew of new additions joining the Fire this season, the club faces quite a difficult test on the road Sunday against the champions.
The Sounders boast one of the most hostile environments for opponents (ranked second in average attendance last season) and also some of the most dangerous goal scorers. Peru native and forward Raúl Ruidíaz smashed the ball into the back of the net 15 times for head coach Brian Schmetzer’s team last season, which tied Ruidiaz for fifth place in the league when combining his regular season and post-season totals. In addition, Seattle has won over 60% of its games against current MLS teams at home since 2009, when it began play in the league as an expansion club.
Despite the early season test, Wicky said the opportunity for the Fire players to prove themselves early on is a challenge they are looking forward to.
“You can say, ‘Oh my God, we are playing away and on turf against the champions.’ But we can also say it’s amazing,” Wicky said. “It’s going to be a full stadium. They’re going to get the trophy. Everyone is excited and we are the guys who are there. So, we’re going to look at it that way, we’re going to make it exciting.”
Throughout the course of the last few months, the Fire have made multiple acquisitions to bolster the talent of the roster. Some of the newcomers include forward Robert Berić , who played for Saint-Étienne of France’s top league and midfielder Gastón Giménez, a 28-year-old who was with Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield of Argentina’s main division prior to coming to Chicago. Giménez signed with the club on Monday, so an appearance in Seattle remains unlikely.
While it is difficult to determine where they will end up at the end of the season, Wicky’s leadership, new home at Soldier Field and switch of ownership to Joe Mansueto has injected new life into the organization.
However, none of these changes hold as much significance as the results of the tough games ahead. If the Fire emerge victorious Sunday, the positive momentum will continue to accelerate exponentially.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for us to show how good we are,” midfielder Brandt Bronico said. “To show how much of a team we are together and to show how much character we have.”
Following Sunday’s match in Seattle, the Fire will have two more road games before the home opener on the lakefront against Atlanta United on March 21. It goes without saying that this slate of matches will dictate not only fan interest in the team but also how much of a competitor the Fire will be this season in the MLS.
“Hopefully we can take some points away on these three games,” Bronico said.