REUNION, FL – Whitecaps FC are gearing up to face a revamped Chicago Fire FC squad on Thursday morning in what will be their final matchup of the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament.
With Fire FC joining Group B after a last-minute reshuffle, the two sides have not had the usual lead time to study their opponents.
However, thanks to their previous stops before Vancouver, a number of 'Caps players are familiar with Chicago's new acquisitions.
AT THE HELM
Whitecaps FC CEO and Sporting Director Axel Schuster was introduced to his Chicago Fire FC counterpart Georg Heitz during his time in the Bundesliga. Before being appointed to the role of Chicago’s sporting director in December of 2019, Heitz built up his reputation as sporting director of the Swiss Super League’s FC Basel from 2008 to 2017.
During his time as a head of football operations with 1. FSV Mainz 05 and later senior director of professional football of FC Schalke 04, Schuster occasionally worked with Heitz when transferring in players from the Swiss club.
“Georg was a sporting director at Basel at my time when I was at Mainz,” Schuster said. “I know him very well and we were close connections because we bought some players from Basel. Mainz and Basel were comparable clubs from set up and the financial side, so we had a lot of exchanges; that’s the reason that we know each other very well. Since we came to the league [MLS] at the same time, we connected constantly and still have that exchange.”
On the other side, Heitz discussed his relationship with Schuster in a similar manner and mentioned the mutualistic relationship between the two sides.
“Yes, of course, I remember,” Heitz said of his interactions with Schuster in Europe. “We were kind of a feeder club wherever he was because I used to work in a much smaller league than he did, and we transferred players from Basel to Mainz—his first club in Germany—and afterward to Schalke.”
Transfers between the two include defender Park Joo-Ho to Mainz in 2013, midfielder Fabian Frei to Mainz in 2015 and, most notably, forward Breel Embolo to Schalke in 2016.
The relationship between the two has continued on as Schuster and Heitz speak regularly. Heitz went on to praise Schuster’s style as a sporting director and spoke highly of his future with the ‘Caps.
“We speak regularly about almost everything,” Heitz said. “We talk about the league, about players, about ideas, about so many things because I really appreciate him. He’s not the guy who does the obvious things; he is very creative. He has a huge network and I am sure that he will be successful with Vancouver.”
This will be just the second time the two have met in direct competition, with the first time coming on July 24, 2013, in a 3-3 preseason draw between Heitz’s Basel and Schuster’s Mainz.
ON THE PITCH
Since joining the Fire last December, Heitz has made a myriad of moves to give Chicago more firepower and depth coming into 2020. At the end of last season, Chicago lost a quartet of talented midfielders in Dax McCarty (traded to Nashville SC) who led the team in minutes, Nicolas Gaitan (option declined) who led the team in assists, Aleksander Katai (option declined) who was third on the team last season in goals and assists and Bastian Schweinsteiger (retired).
Key additions to the squad under Heitz include midfielder Álvaro Medrán (free), midfielder Mauricio Pineda (Homegrown), forward Robert Berić (transfer from Saint-Étienne), defender Miguel Ángel Navarro (transfer from Deportivo La Guaira) and midfielder Gastón Giménez (transfer from Vélez Sarsfield).
For a few players that will hit the pitch on Thursday, there is a level of familiarity that the rest of both squads may otherwise lack. Vancouver’s Érik Godoy, who is currently with the team but has yet to pay in the tournament due to injury, and Chicago’s Gastón Giménez know each other from Argentina’s Primera División. With Godoy’s nearly eight years in the Primera División to Giménez’s nine, the two have matched up plenty of times in the past few years.
“He’s a central mid with a good left foot,” Godoy said of Giménez. “He’s very technical, can finish well inside the box and he can score some goals and assists."
"You have to stick with him closely. Watch his highlights on YouTube," Godoy said when asked what advice he would give his teammates.
Additionally, a trio of players on Vancouver and Chicago have made acquaintances with one another before making their moves to MLS. Vancouver’s Fredy Montero and Ranko Veselinović got to know Chicago’s Luka Stojanović in Europe.
Montero linked up with Stojanović back in 2014 when Montero played for the Primeira Liga’s Sporting CP and Stojanović for Sporting CP B. Also, Veselinović got to know Stojanović in the Serbian SuperLiga from 2018 to 2020 when Veselinović played for FK Vojvodina and Stojanović for FK Čukarički.
“I just talked with him today and we spoke a little bit,” Veselinović said of Stojanović. “We know each other from the Serbian league, and we played a couple games between each other. He’s a really good offensive player with a good shot and good long ball. He knows how to dictate tempo in the game, and I think Chicago will use him a lot.”
While the last three times the two Serbians met up resulted in 0-0 draws, Veselinović went on to add that Stojanović knows his technique and can be dangerous for any team he lines up against.
Vancouver’s matchup with Chicago will kick off at 6 a.m. PT at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Thursday as the ‘Caps look to pick up their first win of the MLS is Back Tournament. Vancouver are aiming for a win by at least two goals to have a chance at advancing, as well as regular-season points. The match can be seen on TSN and heard on TSN Radio 1040.