Fire set for first road test of 2021 Saturday night in Atlanta

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Chicago Fire FC face their first road test of the 2021 regular season this weekend when they head south to take on Atlanta United on Saturday night at 7 p.m. CT.

Following Wednesday’s training session at SeatGeek Stadium, head coach Raphael Wicky and midfielder Gastón Giménez discussed the matchup with members of the media.

“Atlanta has been a strong team since they have been in this league, a very strong team,” Wicky said. “They had a difficult year last year, but even last year they had very good players. So we know that this is a good opponent.”

Atlanta ended up a spot below the Fire in the 2020 Eastern Conference standings, finishing the abbreviated regular season outside the MLS Cup Playoffs in 12th place. Former Argentine Men’s National Team standout Gabriel Heinze was brought in from Club Atlético Veléz Sarsfield in the offseason to replace interim manager Stephen Glass in January, and a handful of high-priced on-field imports from across the Argentine Superliga came in to join him.

Like the Fire, Heinze’s side picked up a point in their regular season opener with a 0-0 draw on the road against rivals Orlando City SC.

“We have their games which they played in the Champions League and we have the game with Orlando,” Wicky said. “We know they have a new coach and we know how this new coach plays. They have some good additions.”

“We know what they are trying to do and we are going to prepare for that. But we also believe that we have our chances to win these games.”

As Wicky referenced, Atlanta completed a 2-0 aggregate victory over Costa Rican heavyweights Alajuelense in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 last week as well. Following Saturday’s visit from the Fire, Heinze’s side will shift their focus back to the regional competition as their two-leg quarterfinal matchup with the Philadelphia Union begins on Tuesday, April 27.

The Fire will be looking to build upon Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution in their home opener at Soldier Field. A hot start saw forward Robert Berić get his first goal of 2021 (and a subsequent inclusion in the MLS Team of the Week) and midfielder Luka Stojanović add another within 11 minutes of kickoff, but New England were able to claw back with a pair of first half goals of their own to draw level.

Saturday’s matchup will be a unique one for Giménez, who appeared 49 times for Heinze from 2018-20 when the pair were together at Argentine Superliga side Veléz Sarsfield prior to their respective moves to MLS.

Giménez spoke about the opportunity to take on his former manager on Wednesday’s call.

“The fact of having spent so much time with him makes it so that I know how he plays, and he also knows how I play,” the midfielder said. “And that makes the game - I'm not really sure how to say it - but maybe different for me. But it's not more than that. He has gone his own way and I've come my own way, and hopefully when we meet up, we'll be able to do things right and come away from that game with the three points.”

“We just wish each other a lot of luck, and each one of us is looking to do what's best for where we are right now.”

The Fire were 0-5-6 in league matches held away from Soldier Field last year, but remain confident that the growing pains suffered together last season have pushed them forward as a group.

“I think last year was really an atypical year for all of us, and all the things we were doing wrong we were trying to fix right away during the year,” Giménez said. “We’re a different team this year…So it's always important to go out there and try to get the points and then get results - not only for the results, but also for the team's confidence. It's always important to win every game, whether you're at home or away.”

On the injury front, Wicky noted that midfielder Elliot Collier (left ankle) and defender Carlos Terán (left thigh) are day-to-day in their return to full participation from injury, while midfielder Fabian Herbers (right knee) is making progress but has not yet returned to team training. Goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm continues his rehab from last season’s knee injury after undergoing a small surgical procedure last week.

The Fire’s visit to Atlanta United will be available to watch locally on WGN-TV and CFFC Live at 7 p.m. CT and to listen on the radio at Latino Mix 93.5 FM. Fans outside Chicago can tune in via Major League Soccer’s out-of-market package on ESPN+.