After nearly a week of fitness drills, meeting new teammates and adjusting to European surroundings, the Chicago Fire’s first (unofficial) test of the 2019 season awaits them Wednesday afternoon.
Head coach Veljko Paunović and his men will open their preseason slate against Spanish side Atlético Madrid B at 4 p.m. local time (9 a.m. CT) at Madrid’s Ciudad Del Futbol.
“We will have tomorrow our first scrimmage – our first game – just to test where we stand against teams that are right now in-season,” Paunović said. “It’s a scrimmage, but most importantly we have to see where we are against teams that are already in competition.”
Atlético Madrid B are the reserve team for Atlético Madrid (currently in second place in La Liga), and play in Group 1 of Segunda División B, the Spanish soccer pyramid’s third tier. Since its founding in 1964, Atlético Madrid B has had a hand in developing players like Spanish National Team and Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea, Atlético Madrid midfielders Koke and Saúl Niguez, and -- at one time -- Paunović himself. They currently sit second in the Segunda División B Group 1 standings.
Although it’s just a week into the 2019 preseason, Paunović has a clear idea of what he’d like to see when he sees his side take the field Wednesday afternoon.
“I think we have to see glimpses of our style that we want to play, which will be controlling the game when we have the ball, then good defensive organization when we don’t have it and quick recovery of the ball,” he said. “That will be the main thing, and starting to work on set pieces also. Right now, the most important thing (is) we have to get in defensive shape on set pieces and learn our system and that will be -- for now -- enough.”
For the players, Wednesday’s match will serve as an initial gauge of progress as they work their way toward March 2 and the 2019 season opener at Dignity Health Sports Park against the LA Galaxy (7 p.m. CT, FS1). After a week’s worth of hours-long fitness sessions and two-a-day trainings, Paunović is encouraged by his group’s early returns.
“The guys are doing an amazing job,” he said. “They are very committed, very motivated. They are sharp also. I think the level and the quality is fantastic. So far, we’ve never had this quality on our team. The atmosphere is fantastic.”
“I think the working attitude is where it should be in the preseason, especially after the first week. I think we have to be happy with the fitness levels we’re achieving.”
Wednesday’s friendly contest will offer offseason additions like Marcelo, Cristian Martinez, Amando Moreno, and Jeremiah Gutjahr a first opportunity to take the field alongside their new teammates in a match setting. For Paunović, the integration of the new players among the returnees has been a smooth one so far.
“I think (the new players) are helping themselves by being open to learning and open to meeting their new teammates. On the other side, also the reception they had from the team, from the guys, was exceptional. I think in the end, it’s all about bonding right now and we have that. We are building a good team spirit, which is very important. That’s another reason why preseason is very important.
“We are very happy with everything so far. We just have to keep it up.”