Head coach Raphael Wicky and the Chicago Fire will at last depart for Florida on Wednesday afternoon, exactly one week prior to their meeting with Nashville SC on opening night of the MLS is Back Tournament.
Coming out of a media availability session on Tuesday, Wicky told reporters he is embracing the tournament's unknowns and feels prepared for the task at hand.
“It is a big challenge for me, but it's a big challenge for everyone," he said. "It's an unknown, and we have never been through a season like (this).”
The Fire will have had three weeks of full team training together by the time they kickoff against Nashville SC next Wednesday night (9:30 p.m. CT, ESPN). In that short time, Wicky's proverbial plate has been full. Coming out of the season's suspension amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the 43-year-old has carefully brought his players back to fitness, implement his preferred style of play, and fostered a healthy team culture among an overhauled roster, among other things.
“If you have already worked since two, three, four seasons with the team -- not with all your players, but with a core -- then it's probably easier because you just continue after a break like we have had with coronavirus. You just continue. And we were...in the start of building something, so it is a challenge."
Wicky has been impressed with what he's seen from his players in their return to training so far, noting the guidance provided by the Club's training and performance staff during the months of quarantine.
"I have to say the team looked good from the beginning," he said. "They actually came back out of this, we had probably around, I think it was around 10 or 11 weeks of coronavirus before we started the individual training. The team looked actually good. They came in a good physical point back to those individual trainings."
"We said from the beginning, we're going to do the best we can. We're going to try to push the guys as hard as we can, but also you have to be careful to not run into too many injuries. So far, knock on wood, we are fine."
The last several weeks of individual, small group, and full group training have also allowed Wicky and his staff to get more familiar with some of the team's newest faces, several who arrived just days before the season was suspended.
"These two and a half weeks now of full-team training gave us a little bit of time to get to know (Ignacio) Aliseda, Gastón Giménez, Luka Stojanović (and) Boris Sekulić -- these guys who haven't trained here much," he said, adding Miguel Navarro to the list as well. "(It) gave us a little bit of a better understanding of how they are, even (though) we knew them before, but we have never trained them."
"The team is working hard. That's what really makes us happy -- that the team is working hard, working together."
While the league's on-going health and safety measures permeate every training session, Wicky believes the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and the team's emphasis on keeping regular contact while quarantined have helped bring his group of players closer together. Despite 17 of the team's 31 players being new to the roster in 2020, Wicky believes in the strength of a team united off the field.
"Most of the teams who win big tournaments you can normally hear -- when you talk to people who were involved -- they said, 'We had an amazing team spirit and team chemistry,' and not only the best talent always wins," Wicky said. "So I think that is going to be an important point, and I'm quite positive that we have really good guys who work hard, who fight for each other and that will be an important point."
"To have this culture of actually being together and working and fighting together, that's going to be important, next to the tactical stuff.”
Following their July 8 date with Nashville SC, Wicky's men will take on Inter Miami FC (July 14, 8 a.m. CT | ESPN) and New York City FC (July 19, 7 p.m. CT | FS1) as part of the tournament's Group A. Squaring off against a pair of 2020 expansion sides and a team with a new head coach each add to the tournament's unknowns, but Wicky is no less enthusiastic.
"It's a blind date," he laughed. "(We're) going into a blind date down there. But we're excited."
Won't be long now. #MLSisBack— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) July 1, 2020