The Fire get a break from the hectic MLS season this weekend, but that doesn’t mean the Men in Red will have the time off – in fact, they’ll be playing against perhaps the most talented team they’ll see all year. The Premier League’s Aston Villa will be coming to Toyota Park, in the second stop of their three match American tour.
“We look forward to the match tomorrow,” said Chicago head coach Frank Klopas. “It's a great opportunity for all the fans here in Chicago to come out and see a really historic club, and a club that has some top quality players.
"In my eyes... it's going to be a very good game,” added defender Arne Friedrich. “Especially for our team, it's great to get some experience against [a team from] one of the best leagues in the world, so it will be very nice to see how we compete [with] them.
“I'm looking forward to playing them -- I usually like to play against the English teams,” he added. “I hope we will have penalty kicks [laughs]. But to be serious, it will be a great game, and it's very good for both teams to see what kind of standard they are at now.”
Klopas mentioned that he’ll probably need to rest a few of his regulars, due to injuries and general weariness (the Fire played at New York in 100 degree heat on Wednesday, and were delayed flying back), and it would be a chance for some of the less-used players to prove themselves. He did stress, though, that he’d be fielding a competitive team and taking the match very seriously.
“As a player, [when] you step on the field you always want to perform well,” he said. “As a team, you always want to look to improve on certain things, whether you're playing Villa or next week we're playing San Jose. There's certain things that you work on all season, and you want to see those things carry through.
“The team that we're playing is of high quality, so for us it's going to be an opportunity to see where we are, how we've improved. And also from a league standpoint to see how far we've come along. So you always take the game seriously when you step on the field."
The Villans – who beat Philadelphia 1-0 in the first leg of their tour Wednesday night -- will also be taking the match seriously, even though it’s still preseason for them. With new manager Paul Lambert only in his second month in charge, he’s still trying to change the mentality of the club, which finished a disappointing 16th in the league last season.
"I think for us it's another test,” said Lambert. “We're playing well at the moment, which is really pleasing. And that's the big thing… the team is starting to play well.
“Before we play West Ham [to open the Premier League season] we have to be ready. It's still a long way away, but at the minute the lads have done fantastic... This game for us will be really hard, really tough. But we come here, [and] we try to win. We have the mentality of winning, and that's what we try to do."
The preseason tour will also serve as a chance for players to stake a claim for more playing time this upcoming season – as Lambert said, “everybody starts very even. And whoever performs well, come the start of the season, then that's who will play.”
Two of those players – goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender Eric Lichaj – are actually from the Chicago area. Guzan (from Homer Glen, Ill.) and Lichaj (from Downers Grove, Ill.) are two testaments to the increasing strength of American soccer, and Lambert admitted he had taken notice.
“American players, I think, are really getting better,” he said. “And there's some over in Britain, as you know, that are really good players. So I don't think that the league can be underestimated, I really don't.
“I think [MLS has] definitely gotten stronger,” he continued. “Frank would know probably better than I do that the teams are getting better.”
Klopas and his team would like nothing more than to prove Lambert’s point right in front of him Saturday night.