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How the Chicago Fire are helping each other deal with life in the MLS is Back bubble

For Raphael Wicky, managing the Chicago Fire while living in quarantine during a pandemic means dealing with players’ fears, anxieties, and frustrations—all while trying to win a soccer tournament

The Chicago Fire celebrate during a friendly with Minnesota United
Chicago Fire FC

Chicago Fire Head Coach Raphael Wicky isn’t big on social media. But, just three days after arriving in the quarantine bubble in Orlando for the MLS is Back Tournament, Wicky had a social media problem on his hands.

Fire forward CJ Sapong was feeling frustrated, and shared his thoughts in a tweet.

“Man, shout-out to my fellow players in MLS! If you all knew what was REALLY going on down here, I’m positive the ‘shut up and kick/ I’d do it for that paycheck’ notions would quickly dissipate! Enduring this strain is exactly why we’re #morethananathlete,” Sapong wrote on July 4.

After learning about the tweet, Wicky and Fire Sporting Director Georg Heitz reached out to Sapong to figure out what was going on.

“So, we have a sit down,” Wicky said in a video conference call with reporters. “I think it’s important that there is an open communication, and that is the case. The league had a long call with the players, and I know the league sat down, as well, with CJ to hear his opinions, to hear his concerns, and I think that’s what we have to do whenever someone has a concern; that we talk about it.”

Wicky didn’t say what Sapong was referring to in his tweet, but he admitted when word got out that FC Dallas had a growing number of positive coronavirus cases, the league wasn’t doing a good job keeping players and staff around the rest of the league informed.

”There were a lot of rumors and maybe not in the beginning the best communication,” Wicky said. “But after a while, when the league communicated what’s actually a fact, things are good down here. That’s where we are.”

FC Dallas has since dropped out of the tournament, as has Nashville SC, the team the Fire were originally supposed to play on opening night.

The Fire will now face the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday morning (8 a.m. CT, ESPN) after shifting from Group A to Group B. Fire midfielder Brandt Bronico said the team is taking it all in stride.

“I think the vibe is definitely positive,” Bronico said. “We haven’t really taken into account the emotions of everything going on outside of our team and outside of what we can control. We’ve been very focused on our first game on July 14th. Even with all of the distractions, whether that being playing Wednesday or playing next Tuesday, we are focused on playing our first game.”

Francisco Calvo, who captained the Fire in the first two matches of the 2020 season before the coronavirus hiatus, agreed.

“I feel the team is really well,” Calvo said. “Everybody’s happy. I would love to invite you to our trainings, because all the time it’s good atmosphere, starting with the coaching staff, and they bring it to us.”

Because of the late schedule change, the Fire will go from opening the tournament against an expansion side, to facing the defending champion Sounders—clearly a much bigger task.

“We spoke to the guys and said, look, guys, it’s not ideal, but it’s not easy as well for the league to deal,” Wicky said, “They tried their best. Let’s focus on what we can control. Wherever we play, whenever we play, let’s be ready. Let’s be ready and we are. We are. The team is doing well. The team works well. The spirit is good. They are all focused.

“Are we happy about every single thing with changing the group and now we have to prepare differently? No, but it doesn’t make sense to lose too much energy on that. Again, we are going to be ready. We are ready. They want to play. That’s why we are here.”

The Fire lost to Seattle 2-1 in March, after a late goal by Jordan Morris. The Fire looked strong in the match, and since then, the team has added several new key reinforcements in Gastón Giménez, Ignacio Aliseda, Luka Stojanović, and Boris Sekukić.

Francisco Calvo
Chicago Fire FC

“We know Seattle,” Calvo said. “We played them before. I think we did a really good game against them. Unlucky we lost in the last minute, but know how to play them.”

After the Seattle match, the Fire will play the San Jose Earthquakes and the Vancouver Whitecaps to round out the group stage. The top two finishers in each of the six groups will advance to the tournament knockout rounds, along with the four best third place teams. However long the Fire last in Orlando, Bronico said the team will be there for each other.

“I think 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.”

For Calvo, who played for Costa Rica in the 2018 World Cup, the MLS is Back Tournament has a similar feel—every match is like a final, every player on the team needs to be ready, and if you put it all together, you can win a trophy in seven matches. And, he thinks the Fire have a chance to pull it off.

“We are not afraid of anybody in this tournament or in this league,” Calvo said.