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The Chicago Fire are having fun again, and it shows on the field

What Fire players are saying about each other, and how it fits into Raphael Wicky’s vision for the team

Seattle Sounders FC v Chicago Fire FC - MLS Is Back Tournament
Robert Berić
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

There’s no doubt Tuesday’s big win over the Seattle Sounders at the MLS is Back Tournament helped the Chicago Fire’s team morale. Winning always does.

But if you’ve been paying attention, it’s been clear for some time now: this team really enjoys playing together, and perhaps more importantly, the guys genuinely seem to like spending time with each other.

This isn’t new, either. It was on display at the very start of the season. I saw it first hand at training sessions in February and March—back in the days when reporters still got to watch the first 15 minutes of practice, before the pandemic.

Most times I was there, the players would start by playing a keepy-up game—basically four or five guys stand in a circle, and each player gets two touches to keep the ball in the air. The guy who lets it hit the ground is the loser.

Every time I was at training, there were two guys who always seemed to be most vocal during this game, who were having the most fun—Francisco Calvo and Robert Berić.

One time, Berić was the one who dropped the ball, and he felt the other guys had set him up to fail. While his teammates were dying laughing at him, Berić was shouting F-bombs in his Slovenian accent back at them, while laughing, too.

It was hysterical, and the fun they were having was infectious.

For Berić, being that kind of teammate isn’t new. When he was set to leave Saint-Etienne to come to Chicago, nearly every last teammate shared a goodbye video on Instagram, often with a joke or a funny photo.

“He’s just a good guy,” Fire head coach Raphael Wicky said of his designated player/striker. “He’s a very good player, but a good guy who hangs out with everyone, who wants to work and play for the team. This is really, really good. He’s not a high maintenance guy, and I’m very happy about that. I’m very happy about how he integrated in the team on and off the field. This is very important. As well, this is one of the points from the beginning we said; it’s all about the team. It’s not about a single player, and he is the perfect example on how he does it on and off the field.”

Goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm agrees.

“In Germany, you would say guys like [Berić] have ‘kalte schnauze;’ he has a cold mouth, because he’s so cold inside the box,” Kronholm said. “He (doesn’t) need many chances to score, and that makes him strong. He’s a good guy, as well, like every other guy in our team.”

Seattle Sounders FC v Chicago Fire

“He’s a great guy,” midfielder Álvaro Medrán said of Berić, through a translator. “He’s really great. We generally think, or the stereotype is that people from Eastern Europe are a little bit cold, but really he’s great. He’s great with all of the guys which is fantastic, which is important since the group can get together.”

You could see it on display during Tuesday morning’s win over Seattle. After Berić scored the opening goal, he immediately turned to a streaking CJ Sapong, and struck the arms-crossed “Wakanda Forever” pose. CJ, who had a giant smile on his face, ran over and gave his strike partner a big chest bump.

It’s a far cry from the stories Sapong has told about his relationship with Aleksandar Katai last season.

Shortly after he was hired, Raphael Wicky talked to Hot Time in Old Town at length about the culture he wanted for the Chicago Fire—a team where players are competing with each other for playing time, but still enjoy coming to training every day, and enjoy being around one another.

He said if players were scared or angry at training, they can’t perform at their best. If they were there for each other, fighting for each other, holding each other to high standards, it would take time, but the Fire would eventually win.

Against Seattle, they showed what that culture looked like on the pitch.

“I think we are on the right path,” Wicky said. “I see similar cohesion of the team which I saw in March. We are continuing to do what we have done there, working together, trying to create chances and trying to be hard to play against, and I think that’s what we showed as a team. We have now more options than we have in March, which gives us more competition in the team, which makes it harder for the players to actually be on the field, which makes them normally working harder and getting better, because competition normally makes you better.”

That culture starts with Wicky, but as captain, it’s Calvo’s job to be his conduit on the pitch. Calvo’s pregame speech before the Seattle match, which the Fire’s camera crew captured for the brilliant “Road to Soldier Field” series, showed his leadership qualities.

“Yeah, he’s a great guy, and he deserves [to be] the captain.” Kronholm said of Calvo. “He’s a good captain. He’s our captain, and I am proud to be a part of the whole team, but he is our leader.”

Shortly after arriving in Orlando, Kronholm mentioned while shooting a video for MLS he couldn’t stop smiling. He knew something special was happening with the 2020 Chicago Fire.

“I’m still smiling,” Kronholm said. “I can repeat myself again and again: I think we have a very good team spirit. We have a high-quality team. We work hard together. I can give you an easy example. Our gym sessions are always not mandatory, but the whole team, so 100 percent of the team is joining the gym sessions. These are small things, small things that makes me happy.”

The Fire have only one win in the books, so fans are probably right to remain cautious with their excitement. San Jose and Vancouver will be tough opponents, for sure. But, the vibe around the team is fun again. Wicky’s team culture seems to be falling into place. And perhaps most important of all, these guys believe they can win.