After the Chicago Fire held their first training session since returning from a week free from club duties, head coach Veljko Paunovic spoke with media members Monday via teleconference about the time away and the challenges that lie ahead as the season is set to resume.
“It was very helpful, this break," Paunovic said, "to help everyone to come back, to be refreshed, and be ready to continue the next phase of the season."
The team was given last week off in conjunction with Major League Soccer’s two-week pause for Copa America Centenario. Their inaugural training session was used to get the team back up to optimal fitness levels and begin preparation for the summer months.
“We are taking this week as a mini preseason in order to prepare for next week’s game,” Paunovic said. “We are going to have a scrimmage this Thursday where we will play against the PDL team. We will have players from the first team who will play for the PDL so we can balance the competitiveness and the level between both teams. It's very important in terms of evaluation for us to see where we stand before we play the Open Cup game.”
Last week, Pauno’s Men In Red learned they’ll welcome NASL side Indy Eleven to Toyota Park on Wednesday, June 15 in this season’s U.S. Open Cup campaign opener (tickets available here). Both Paunovic and General Manager Nelson Rodriguez on Monday made clear the importance they place on pursuing the club's fifth Open Cup trophy.
“We believe, as Nelson has said before, it’s a very important competition for the club and we want to be the best we can be," Paunovic said. "We want to do our best to win this Cup, and we will do everything in order to do well and compete.”
On top of that, Paunovic understands where his team lies in the MLS regular season table and knows there is much ground to be made up in the coming weeks.
“It’s a big difference with some teams who have (played) 15 or 16 games right now,” he said. “That gap is what we have to fulfill. We are also very aware that that gap at some moment will be filled and we know that we have to be successful. We have to take those games – as we did with all our other games – in a very competitive way and win those games. That’s what it takes to engage and be in the playoffs.”
Paunovic is looking to carry through the momentum his team built before the break to continue the improvements he’d seen in them during the three games prior.
“We are working on everything,” he said. “We are working on our fitness, on our style, we work on our phases of the game we have to improve, and we have to maintain all those levels very high in order to compete well. We were talking about it, and there were some phases where we had to improve more, and I think we did well in the last weeks. Now, it’s very important to maintain that level and improve it.”
On midfielder John Goossens: “Goossens is doing very good. I spoke to him today. He is in the final stage of his recovery. This week is very important for him. We’ll see how he tolerates the net level of fitness in order to get to the level of the rest of the guys. If that goes well, we believe next week he’ll be full-go and start working with the rest of the team.”
On defender Rodrigo Ramos: “On Rodrigo, he went through the concussion protocol after the game during this week, so he was treated by our medical staff and athletic trainers. Today is the last day of that protocol. Everything seems to be fine. He should be from tomorrow full-go, and we are very happy to have him back.”
On defender Michael Harrington: “Harrington is also performing well. He’s also in the last stage of his recovery from the groin strain that he had.”
On midfielder Collin Fernandez: “Collin also is (in the midst of) a setback for him. He was called for the national team of Peru to play under-20s, but before he got there he said that he doesn’t feel his ankle is good enough. He decided to stay and do the treatment during this week and we will provide him all the help that he needs in order to recover.”