It’s a cold and snowy Wednesday morning in Chicago, and the Fire are inside the dome at the team’s training facility in Bridgeview. Raphael Wicky is everywhere on this day—first, putting the final touches on his session plan at a table next to the field, then talking to his assistants, including Fire legend Frank Klopas, and finally, addressing his team at midfield before the day’s work is set to really begin.
Wicky—or “Rapha” as everyone calls him—is actively taking part in training with his team. He’s playing balls into one line during a technical drill, and then he’s off to the next activity, checking his folded up notes along the way. The season opener in Seattle is four days away, and he doesn’t want to waste a single second of his time with his players.
During our time watching the session, Wicky never shouts once. He’s intense, but positive. Demanding, but thoughtful. Wicky definitely isn’t a Mike Ditka-type coach, telling his players off with f-bombs when they fail. Sure, there are reporters watching, but a club source said Wicky is like this all the time, whether he’s training his players, or out to lunch.
For Wicky, it’s about establishing a culture. That culture starts with professionalism and honesty.
“For me, the most important thing is we tell them when things are not good,” Wicky told Hot Time in Old Town. “When we’re not happy with the way they trained today, or the way they came late, or the way they don’t respect certain rules, then we tell them. I don’t need to yell at them. We can sit together. They’re human beings, they’re fathers, some of them. We tell them, look, this is not what we want.
“It’s not about being liked, or not upsetting anyone. It’s not about that. It’s about being professional. Perform every day and do our best. I believe you can only do that if you enjoy, if you feel good, if you have your internal motivation, and if you get a mirror in front of you.”
We’re now sitting inside a back room at SeatGeek Stadium, which is filled with boxes because of the club’s investment in new locker rooms and a new weight room. Wicky wants to make it clear that this positivity doesn’t mean creating a culture where players are comfortable and won’t push each other. But, they have to enjoy the work, and being with each other.
“If you do not enjoy, if you go to trainings and say ‘Oh my God, I can’t be bothered,’ it’s not good,” Wicky said. “We want to create [a culture] where players actually like coming here. But it’s not—I don’t want players to be in a comfort zone, that’s not what we’re gonna create, but still, players need to enjoy to come and train.
“And then, there is a culture, how do you live together? How do you work together? Challenge each other. Respect each other. I said, ‘Look, guys, if you’re not playing, don’t be mad at your teammate. Be mad at me. I’m the guy who makes the choice who plays.’”
New forward Robert Berić has bought into Wicky’s culture in Chicago.
“The biggest message was for sure to become a group,” Berić said, just after defender Francisco Calvo interrupted his media session to give Berić a giant hug. “To become a group, to work well for each other, to fight hard for each other. To be one of the toughest teams to play against, and to have results, to have successes.”
Choosing the captain of Chicago Fire FC
Several Chicago Fire players wore the captain’s armband during the preseason matches in Florida and California, and Wicky doesn’t see the rush in naming a captain for the 2020 season.
“I haven’t really thought about that so much, because I don’t have all the guys in yet,” Wicky said. “So, I also wanted to give it a little bit of time. I think if we have a leadership group, then it can be different captains. But, I will define probably three guys, and it will probably rotate with these three.”
The Fire are still without 19-year-old speedster Ignacio Aliseda, and new veteran signings Boris Sekulić, Gastón Giménez and Luka Stojanović, who are all waiting on paperwork to clear before they can officially join the team. But, Wicky said he expects all three of those veteran players to step up and become leaders, along with several guys who are already with the team.
“I see multiple guys,” he said. “It is obviously ‘Jonny B’ [Jonathan Bornstein], Kenny [Kronholm]. It is Bobby [Shuttleworth], in his way. He came later, but Bobby is also a leader. CJ [Sapong] is a leader, a veteran. Francisco [Calvo] is a leader. Robert [Berić] is a leader. But, we also want younger guys to step in there. Djordje [Mihailović] is a young guy, but he has to make this next step. We want to help him make this next step in becoming a leader. Not only a technical leader, but a leader off the field. So, there are like 6-7-8 leaders on this field.”
Wicky’s coaching education began as a player
Prior to his coaching career, Wicky, 42, built an impressive resume on the field. He played in the German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga, and started four matches in the 2006 FIFA World Cup for Switzerland. Wicky said his coaching philosophy was built by a few different coaches he had along his journey as a professional midfielder. He won’t name him, but Wicky remembers one coach in Germany who had him playing with a constant fear of making a mistake.
“I’m sometimes asked what did you take from different coaches? And from him, I took that. I don’t want to be like that. But, that’s just me, personally. There may be coaches who are like that, and they’re very successful. I don’t want the players to be scared. But, I want the players to know they have to perform, and they have to work hard,” he said.
Wicky said one of his favorites was legendary coach Luis Aragones, who guided him during his 2001 stint at Atletico Madrid.
“I probably didn’t understand half of what he said because it was Spanish (laughs), but it’s just the approach. He was very, very honest. He was very hard, but he was very honest,” Wicky said.
His other favorite he mentioned was Dutch coach Huub Stevens. Wicky played for Stevens in 2007, during the end of his six-year run as a player for Hamburg. Wicky remembers the way Stevens handled a bad situation.
“[He] actually told me I was done at Hamburg,” he said. “He actually basically fired me, but he was very honest, and I liked that. I try to be like that. If this is not good enough, then I’m going to tell you, in a respectful way.
“I liked these two approaches. They were demanding, hard. But, they were good humans.”
Coming to America
After his Bundesliga run was over, Wicky played five matches for Sion in his native Switzerland, and then joined Chivas USA in Los Angeles, where he teamed up with a bunch of players with Chicago ties—Jonathan Bornstein, Brad Guzan, Zach Thornton, Jesse Marsch, Daniel Paladini and Jim Curtin, who became a friend. He only lasted five matches in MLS before his career ended due to an ankle injury, but he said he fell hard for California.
“Ever since, I come back almost every year. I bought a house there. I love California. I love the life in the United States,” he said.
While he was back in Switzerland in the 2010s coaching FC Basel’s youth teams—and eventually the first team—Wicky kept tabs on MLS through those old Chivas USA teammates and friends.
He ended up marrying an American, too. Wicky’s wife is from California. They met “at an airport in Mexico, but I’m not going to go into those details!” he said, smiling, and she joined him in Switzerland during the end of his run at Basel. He said he wasn’t expecting to take another youth job when U.S. Soccer approached him about coaching the under-17 boys team ahead of last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup.
The team was strong in qualifying, and included current Borussia Dortmund star Giovanni Reyna—”I think in this age group, I have never trained a player of this ability, with this technical and tactical ability,” Wicky said, raving about his former player. But, the U.S. fell flat during the World Cup, and Wicky ended up leaving the job after that. U.S. Soccer requires its national team coaches to live in Chicago, so Wicky had already spent time here before his old boss at Basel, Georg Heitz, took over as Chicago Fire Sporting Director. When Heitz called, Wicky jumped at the chance to finally coach in MLS.
“After my job at Basel, I wanted to come into the American market. I was always following the American market. I really liked MLS a lot, since I played here. It was in my interest to at one point coach in MLS,” Wicky said.
Now, some 12 years after his career as a professional player ended in MLS, Wicky is fulfilling his dream of coaching in the United States. He’s using his experiences as player—both good and bad—to shape the culture of the Chicago Fire.
“I like to have a positive energy here. I like to see things like the glass is half full, not half empty,” Wicky said. “But, if things are not good, I’m telling them. If we have a game, or we have video from training where things are not good, where things we demand are not done, then we show them in front of everyone, and we look at them and say this is not enough. But, it’s in a respectful way. If it’s really good, we show them as well. So, this is the culture we want to create.”
That culture will be on display this Sunday as Wicky’s Fire open the 2020 season on the road against the reigning MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders.