Veljko Paunovic and the MLS All-Stars got down to business Monday morning, gathering for their first official training session at UIC Flames Field in Chicago.
And while many players on this year's roster have played in many an exhibition match over the years, the prospect of lining up opposite arguably the world's best team in front of a near-capacity crowd at Soldier Field -- as well as a global broadcast audience -- is reason enough to bring their 'A' games Wednesday night (8pm, FS1, Univision).
"I think we need to enjoy in this moment, but on the other hand in soccer you cannot make the joke from these types of games," said Fire striker and MLS Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic ahead of his All-Star debut. "You need to go hard, you need to give your maximum, this is our work and also because of our fans who will come in the stadium. On one hand you need to enjoy but on the other hand you need play your best and to try to win this game."
It's a message that Pauno -- who knows well the feeling of facing Los Galácticos from his time as an Athletico Madrid player -- will reiterate to his star-studded squad, a group he characterized as "very excited" despite the quick travel and turnaround following weekend club games.
"There are no exhibitions, no friendly games, we always compete and the first thing we are competing with is ourselves," Paunovic told reporters Monday. "When you’re on the field and you feel the crowd, you feel you’re actually engaged 100 percent and you know you have to perform, you have to be at your best.
"There are a lot of great teams in the world but when you have the opportunity to play against Real Madrid, it’s an occasion you cannot let go. You want to win. That’s how we’re going to prepare."
While their Fire teammates stayed off the training ground Monday before diving into prep for Saturday's home tilt with New England, Fire All-Stars Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Johan Kappelhof and Nikolic were in action helping their head coach implement his tactics for Wednesday's spectacle. At least on the surface, the style and ideas that have come to life for the Fire in 2017 appear set to carry over to this week's plans.
"That’s a big help, all the stuff is also from Chicago Fire, so that’s for us very good," Schweinsteiger said. "But we want to make it comfortable for everyone who is here and have a good feeling, and in the game it obviously is a little bit of an advantage when you play with your (club) teammates."
Nikolic, who twice played Real Madrid in Champions League competition while at Legia Warsaw, spoke Monday of the feeling that it's an opponent who could score nearly at will, and Pauno had a similar scouting report of the side that awaits the best of MLS come Wednesday.
"Tactically, I’m not going to talk a lot of details about that, but we know (Real Madrid) are comfortable with the ball if there is no pressure on the ball, but they’re also comfortable without the ball and they are very dangerous in counterattack. We have to be prepared to match their speed, their pace and their quality with the ball.
"The league, and we on the field, have a great opportunity to show the growth that we’ve had so far and all the work that was done in the past."