CJ Sapong - Chicago Fire - Training
Chicago Fire FC

Chicago Fire bullish ahead of MLS is Back opener: "We're not afraid of nobody in this tournament"

“Control the controllables” is an old and well-worn sports cliché, yet sometimes it’s the most important message.

Such is the case for Chicago Fire FC as they count down to their MLS is Back Tournament opener, a meeting with the defending MLS Cup champions from Seattle on Tuesday morning (9 am ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada). Due to FC Dallas and Nashville SC being withdrawn from the tournament, the Fire have been moved from Group A to Group B and their schedule in Florida significantly shifted.

It’s another layer of adjustment for a club in a period of profound reinvention on and off the field – and that was before the deadly global pandemic moved in. For head coach Raphael Wicky, it's also another chance for his charges to show their resilience.

“Something we started from the beginning, we always said, let us focus on what we can control,” Wicky told reporters on a Friday conference call. “Let's focus on the work we put in, on the discipline we put in with being social distanced, with not getting positive, wearing masks, all of that. Let's focus on our daily work in the training. And that's what we do.

“And that was also the case in these last eight days, where we were not sure in which group are we going to be, what day will we play, because there was a lot of uncertainty. But there was a lot of uncertainty in the last two and a half, three months. So we kind of were used to it.”

Like everyone else, they’ve also had their share of concerns about the risks of exposure to coronavirus and the unique challenges of the MLS is Back Tournament. After CJ Sapong and Djordje Mihailovic shared some concerns not long after Chicago’s arrival in Orlando, there was a renewed focus on communication both within the club and to and from league officials.

“It's about listening if anyone has something, and it's about talking to them,” said Wicky. “I had a little sitdown with CJ and [sporting director] George Heitz and we spoke about it. We also have regular talks with the league, because they also ask us what they can do different or where they can improve. So we have a sit-down. And I think it's important that there is an open communication and that is the case. The league had a long call with the players, I know the league sat down with CJ to get his opinion, to hear his concerns, and I think that's what we have to do. Whenever someone has a concern, that we talk about it.”

Wicky, defender Francisco Calvo and midfielder Brandt Bronico sounded content with their temporary environment in Orlando.

“It's not so much different than regular preseason,” said Bronico. “We can lounge by the pool or play ping pong or chess, activities like that. The hotel, it's pretty big and also every team has their own floor, so we can social distance very easily. And we refrain from hanging out with other teams, because of that risk … just staying disciplined, socially distancing, sanitizing your hands and wearing your mask and listening to those health professionals that implemented these protocols.”

Fire FC’s rebuilding project showed promising signs in the season’s first two weeks, and a batch of new arrivals have since been integrated to provide more options and competition for places. Bronico said Wicky’s installation of a methodical possession-based system will not be overly sidetracked by the Florida heat or the quick turnaround between games.

“I wouldn't say we really have to adjust too much. We have a certain style of play that we've been practicing and we would like to implement,” he said. “So we're kind of just focused on that, regardless of the external conditions like the weather, who we’re playing, what group we might be in by Tuesday.”

Their hopes of picking up where they left off in March will be tested by their rematch with the Sounders, who they appeared to have battled to a stalemate at CenturyLink Field on opening day before suffering an injury-time winner from Jordan Morris.

“We know Seattle, we played them before," said Calvo. "I think we did a really good game against them, unlucky we lost almost in the last minute. But we know how to play them and we're not afraid of nobody in this tournament or this league.”

That confidence suggests the Fire have also embraced another hoary sporting truism: They trust the process.

“Are we happy about every single thing, with changing the group and now we’ll have to prepare differently? No, but it doesn't make sense to lose too much energy on that,” said Wicky. “We're going to be ready. We are ready, and they want to play and that's why we're here. Now we're going to play.”

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