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With lessons learned from MLS is Back tournament, Wicky ready for phase one return to play

After a few weeks of ambiguity, the Chicago Fire's fall schedule is at last taking shape.

Following Major League Soccer's phase one return to play announcement on Saturday, head coach Raphael Wicky and the Fire will now play six games in a span of 24 days, beginning Thursday, Aug. 20 when they travel to face Columbus Crew SC (6:30 p.m. CT | WGN-TV, ESPN+).

“It’s exciting," Wicky told media on Saturday. "We're all happy that we have a schedule now, and again, we have a certain date to work towards, and we have obviously now six games we know in which days they should be played, so that's exciting, very excited about that.”

It’s a tight window to be sure, but not a challenge that the Fire won’t already be familiar with coming out of their participation in the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.

“It's going to be a lot of games in a short amount of time, but we were expecting that,” Wicky said. “It is similar to when you went down to Florida where you know you have at least three games in a short amount of time, and you're going to need your roster.”

The Fire have welcomed midfielder Micheal Azira and defender Johan Kappelhof back to training since their return to Chicago, but will be without the services of midfielders Luka Stojanović and Jeremiah Gutjahr as well as goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm, who Wicky announced had suffered an ACL tear last week in training.

“Everyone needs to be ready, and if you only have sometimes three days, sometimes five days in between games, you may have to do some rotations.”

Alongside the phase one return to play announcement came a continued emphasis from both the Fire and Major League Soccer on keeping players and staff healthy and safe amid the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, especially as each team prepares to return to play in their home markets.

Players and staff will undergo COVID-19 testing every other day, including the day before each match day. Guidelines will additionally be provided to players, coaches and staff to avoid the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 during their time away from Club facilities.

“We were so far, knock - on - wood, we never had a positive test in our team and in our club. So, I think we were very disciplined, but it's very important that we keep doing that,” Wicky said. “Especially now, everyone's back home. Everyone, it's summer, everyone has a life, but we tell the players, look, you've got to be very careful and you've got to follow the rules, wearing masks, social distancing.”

“Yeah, that's the message we share, and so far the players have done great, and also the staff, so we just have to keep following that,” he added. “That's something we have to keep doing.”

While the schedule announcement made official the Fire’s long-awaited return to play at Soldier Field, another measure added to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will be that the Fire’s three phase one home dates will be played without fans present.

“First of all, we have great fans, and we would love to play in front of our fans, but because we love our fans, we decided with the club — and those decisions were made from our leaders of the club — not to play in front of fans.”

With actual match dates now back on their calendar, Wicky and his staff can begin to fully prepare for the task ahead, with the benefit of some added familiarity with their opponents coming out of the MLS is Back Tournament. Their six match window includes a home-and-away series with Columbus and FC Cincinnati, who both made it to the competition’s Knockout Round.

“Columbus is obviously a team who is already, I would say is a made team already,” Wicky said. “They have continuation in what they do. This is the second year of their head coach who added a few pieces, a few talented pieces, so we can see that they already know what they are doing. They are a good team.”

“Then Cincinnati is a little bit of a newer team and now with a new head coach and you see development in the way they have played,” he added. “I think they didn't really have a good game in the first game and then they changed their shape, their formation and their approach to the game in a more defensive approach in a 5-3-2. They are very well organized, and then out of that got some results, and results gives you confidence. That's what we know, and we will prepare for that.”

With insights gained from the MLS is Back Tournament and a new direction in which to now point his side, Wicky’s confidence heading into the team’s phase one schedule is high.

“We know that on a good day, on our day when we are all performing well, we can beat everyone,” he said. “I’m 100 percent sure of that.”