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Fire eager to begin MLS is Back Tournament campaign vs. reigning league champion Sounders

On Thursday, it was announced that the Chicago Fire’s initial opening game opponents -- Nashville SC -- would exit the MLS is Back Tournament amid concern surrounding a number of positive tests for COVID-19 on the club’s roster and staff.

As a result, the Fire would be shifted from the tournament’s Group A over to Group B, where they’d take on a trio of Western Conference opponents in the Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, and Vancouver Whitecaps.

In a virtual media availability from Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex on Friday, head coach Raphael Wicky, captain Francisco Calvo, and midfielder Brandt Bronico spoke on the team’s outlook now having swapped groups ahead of their Tuesday morning kickoff against Seattle (8 a.m. CT | ESPN).

“In general, you have to be flexible and prepare game by game, and that's what we do, and that's also the way we spoke to the team,” Wicky said. “We said, 'Let's focus now on Seattle, and then go to the next game.' That's how we do it.”

Staying focused on what he and his group can control has been a consistent theme in Wicky’s pressers throughout the team’s return to training and their stay in Orlando’s to this point. It was his message following the initial postponement of the Fire’s match with Nashville SC, and a sentiment that Bronico echoed after the Fire’s subsequent switch in groups.

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

Despite the group’s emphasis on their own readiness, the Fire’s familiarity with their first opponent presents an added level of intrigue ahead of their early morning kickoff on Tuesday.

“We know Seattle,” captain Francisco Calvo said. “We played them before. I think we did a really good game against them. Unlucky we lost almost in the last minute, but know how to play them, and we are not afraid of anybody in this tournament or in this league.”

The Sounders were 2-1 victors over the Fire back on March 1 -- the opening day of the Fire’s 2020 regular season campaign -- after Jordan Morris broke the deadlock in stoppage time to secure three points for the home side. 2020 newcomer Robert Berić scored his debut goal for the Fire in a match that featured several new faces on each side.

While the contest presents an inherent ‘rematch’ designation, those new additions will be among several distinct factors -- kickoff time, weather, new competition guidelines, etc. -- giving Tuesdays matchup a fresh feel from the two sides’ meeting in Seattle in early March.

“We've already played them, (so) some of the analysis we've done in February, we probably can use that, but…How much from March is still the same now in these teams?” Wicky said. “They also have a three months break. Some of the players who were there in March may not play now, and maybe now some who were not there in March may play now.”

As preparations for Tuesday’s match continue, the unusual circumstances surrounding the league’s return to play format amid the COVID-19 pandemic have, in part, served as a uniting factor for a roster that features 17 new players for its 2020 campaign.

While emphasizing their collective focus on staying healthy and safe, Bronico believes the group’s shared approach to the tournament can contribute to its long-term growth.

“The biggest thing is kind of supporting each other through it,” Bronico said. “Everybody around the world is having to make sacrifices right now because of this pandemic, and one of ours was agreeing to come down here and restarting the season and getting back to what we love to do. A lot of guys have families. I'm definitely missing my fiancé every day, but it's just kind of being there for your teammate, supporting each other, and just saying, you know, we're down here; like let's make the most of it. Let's win as many games. Ultimately, let's just get better when we're down here, so in the long run, we can be better soccer players and we can help this club be a successful club.”

“The team morale is very high,” he added. “The energy is very high every single day, and we're competitive at training and we're ready to get back and start winning some games, starting July 14th.”

With a particularly unusual week behind them, Calvo is confident in the group’s preparation now less than three days from kicking off their tournament run at last.

“Everybody needs to be ready,” Calvo said. “Everybody needs to be ready because the coach is going to need from every single player in our team.”