Acquired on Aug. 7 from the Montreal Impact, midfielder Micheal Azira arrived in Chicago during a pivotal moment in the team's 2019 campaign. As it stands, the Fire find themselves one point out of MLS Cup Playoff position ahead of Saturday night's visit to the New England Revolution, looking to pick up three more key points on the road.
Azira, 32, brings high-pressure experience both within MLS and at the international level. The Uganda native has been to the MLS postseason three times -- twice with the Seattle Sounders and once with the Colorado Rapids -- and was part of an historic Round of 16 run with Uganda at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations this summer, helping guide the country out of group play for the first time since 1978.
Now, with a pair of Fire appearances under his belt, Azira spoke with Chicago-Fire.com about what he believes it takes to win during a postseason race, the lessons he's learned from his time in MLS, his new Chicago lifestyle, and more:
Chicago-Fire.com: You made your Fire debut in Portland on Aug. 14 and were part of last weekend's clean sheet win against Philadelphia. With your first appearances for the club now behind you, how is your continued adjustment to the new city and new team going?
Micheal Azira: “It’s good so far. Trainings have been good. The group is great. I’m trying to enjoy every moment that I get.”
C-F.com: You’ve come in during a crucial time for the Club with a postseason berth very much in reach. What’s the most important thing for both the team and you personally to be focusing on right now with six matches remaining?
MA: “As a team, we need to focus on improving our mentality and trying to win games. As you saw the game in Portland, we went a man down, but I felt like you could see the positive in it. People didn’t stop fighting. That shows character in the team. Even the game we played here at home against Philly, I felt like people showed character. That’s really important for the team right now. It’s going to be like a final game to us. Every point counts from here. We just need to stay focused.”
C-F.com: Right now six points separate fourth place from 10th place in the Eastern Conference. What’s it like for a player when so many teams are fighting for their postseason lives this late into the season?
MA: “It’s exciting. This is what the fans like. They like to see that the teams are fighting for the playoffs. At the end of the day, you need to focus on you. We need to focus on us. We can’t be looking at other teams and forget to do our own job. We need to focus on us and collect as many points as we can. Three points changes the game. Six points changes the game. Four points changes the game, changes the table. We just need to focus on us.”
C-F.com: “You made the playoffs twice with the Seattle Sounders and once while you were with the Colorado Rapids. What were some of the big lessons you learned from those postseason experiences?”
MA: “It’s about character. The group that you have, to be able to play for each other, to put the team first before individuals. To me, that’s very, very important. We can say that everyone is fighting for one another. If you give your best, the rest is out of your control. That’s all we can control right now, to be able to fight for one another and fight for the fans and fight for the team to move forward.”
C-F.com: After a couple weeks in training and now with two appearances, how do you think your game compliments the other midfielders around you?
MA: “To me, what I focus on is trying to make the guy next to me better and what I can do to help him do his job right. That’s the most important thing to me. It’s not about me. It’s about putting the team first and helping the guy next to me play his best game to get the best result for the team.”
C-F.com: Now that you’ve had some time to get more familiar with the city, how is the Chicago lifestyle treating you off the pitch?
MA: “It’s really beautiful. Summers are really beautiful. You go downtown, you go to different parks, it’s really beautiful. My two kids, they love to be out all the time. We love it here so far. The water, the parks, the restaurants, we love it.”
C-F.com: Let's do some rapid fire questions to wrap things up. What's the top moment of your career so far?
MA: I have three -- Uganda qualifying out of the groups (at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations), going to the Western Conference Finals (in 2016), and winning the 2014 U.S. Open Cup.
C-F.com: What's your favorite moment within MLS?
MA: With Colorado, we went on an unbeaten run at home until the postseason. We didn’t lose a game at home until the conference final (The Rapids went 11-0-6 at home in 2016).
C-F.com: Who's the most difficult player you’ve played against?
MA: (Former FC Dallas midfielder) Mauro Diaz. He was really, really good.
C-F.com: What's one thing you still want to accomplish?
MA: Win an MLS Cup. Easy.
Azira and the Men In Red resume their postseason push on the road this Saturday night against the New England Revolution (6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN+).