After making his highly anticipated first start for the Chicago Fire, Nico Gaitan continues to work towards being fully integrated into his new team after joining from Chinese side Dalian Yifeng in March.
There have been improvements, but there is still a lot of work to be done for the 31-year-old attacking midfielder as the Fire prepare to face the Colorado Rapids on Saturday (1 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada).
“He has to adapt to the speed of the game that is a little different in our league," head coach Veljko Paunovic told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. "He has to learn there are moments in the game where you will not have the ball and you have to work for the team. How much that’s going to drain him is going to determine how much he can play. It’s the part of learning, and learning takes a lot of energy. He’s very experienced and a classy player, but everyone needs some time to learn new leagues, new teammates and new environments. We will manage on the go.”
There's nothing wrong with a little time for adaptation, of course.
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“He came after not playing a competitive game for four months, so we had to work on his fitness and integration of the team," Paunovic said. "Also it’s not easy for a player coming from abroad: The move, finding where to live, getting to know the city. We have people working with him, to settle soon as possible.”
Gaitan was given his first start last weekend in the Fire's 1-1 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps after a pair of substitute appearances to start his MLS career. He has yet to contribute directly to a goal in his first 122 minutes, but there have been encouraging signs.
In training, Paunovic has seen flashes of how great Gaitan can be within the team and elevate the Fire to the next level.
“He’s connecting very well with the offensive players, like (Nemanja) Nikolic, (Aleksandar) Katai and (CJ) Sapong. He finds very good gaps where the creative players behind him, like Bastian (Schweinsteiger) and Dax (McCarty), can find him and play the ball to him," Paunovic said. "He’s associating very well with the spine and core group that’s important for our creative and attacking part of the game.”
Gaitan's integration to the team is a good problem for Paunovic, as the Fire suddenly have options in attack that is deep and talented.
Between Nikolic, Sapong, Katai, Przemyslaw Frankowski, Djordje Mihailovic and now Gaitan, Paunovic won't be able to start all of his bright attackers. Decisions will be made, with minutes sacrificed by all.
“It’s not difficult, it’s just the choice you have to make," Paunovic said. "Who you think can help, [is] ready and is most prepared. You want to play all of them. It’s important to have those pieces, you have more tools to be creative and create a game plan to win every game.”