Itll be hard for Saturdays match against Aston Villa to match up with the Fires international friendlies of 2011 a rousing 3-1 loss to Englands Manchester United before 61,308 at Soldier Field and a 1-0 defeat against Mexicos popular Guadalajara Chivas before a near-sellout (18,224) at Toyota Park.
The Man U matchup proved to be something special. The Fire, struggling badly at Major League Soccer play at the time, scored first and won the hearts of the crowd before succumbing to one of soccers legendary clubs with reserves on the pitch. That match couldnt be topped, but any time Chivas visits its a popular attraction.
Aston Villa doesnt have the Chicago following that Man U and Chivas do. Still, the Villans have a rich history as one of the oldest clubs in Europe. Aston Villa was founded in 1874 and has won 19 domestic titles, including seven in England's first division and seven in the FA Cup.
Since its first season in 1998, the Fire have played 19 such international friendlies against clubs from England, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Scotland and Poland. The Fire are 6-10-3 in those matches but 2-1 vs. EPL teams. Prior to losing to Man U, the Fire defeated Derby County 1-0 at Soldier Field in 1999 and whipped Everton 2-0 at Toyota Park in 2008.
Needless to say, the Fire are happy to take a break from MLS action for another crack at an English Premier League team, and Aston Villa will be playing in Chicago for the first time (7:30 p.m., CSNChicago.com live stream).
"Games like this are always exciting," said Fire coach Frank Klopas at Fridays pre-game press conference at a downtown Chicago hotel. "We get to face a team from one of the best leagues in the world. Its a great opportunity to see how weve improved, and it gives our fans a chance to see an historic club with some real quality players."
Remember, though, that its still an international friendly. The Fire are or should be in mid-season form while Aston Villa is only two weeks into preseason training for its next EPL season.
"Aston Villa is not fit like us," said Fire defender Arne Friedrich. "Our problem is that weve got to mix up our team a bit. We havent played this lineup before, so itll be a tight game."
Klopas wouldnt say just what his lineup will be, but hell rest any regulars with injury problems and use the match to see what young players could be helpful in the second half of the MLS campaign.
"Well put out a competitive team," promised Klopas. Friedrich, the veteran German center back, will play because he wants to improve his fitness. Alex, the Brazilian midfielder who joined the Fire last month, should play big minutes because hes still adjusting to a new team.
Young defender Hunter Jumper and two players with offensive potential who have been basically reserves so far Rafael Robayo and Orr Barouch could improve their playing time for the rest of the season with a good performance on Saturday. The Fire are coming off a 1-0 road loss to the New York Red Bulls in MLS play on Wednesday.
Aston Villa will be playing the second of a three-game tour against MLS clubs. The Villans defeated the Philadelphia Union 1-0 on Wednesday and will visit the Portland Timbers next Tuesday.
"The heat was really hard for us in Philadelphia," said Villa manager Paul Lambert, "and itll be the same here. Itll be another test, and we have to be ready. (MLS) is very strong. It has real good players. Its a league you shouldnt under-estimate. Its players are getting better, and there is no such thing as an easy game."
Friedrich participated in many such international friendlies while playing in Europe, but most of those were in his teams preseason. Thats not the case with the Fire.
"You cant compare, because were in the middle of our season and dont need (these kinds of matches)," he said. "Wed have some problems if these other leagues were in their seasons, because their teams are tactical, better educated. Itll be very good to see if we can compare with these teams or not."
Aston Villa is coming off a down season, having finished 13th in the EPL standings. Still, its roster includes Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given and England striker Darren Bent as well as Eric Lichaj and Brad Guzan, who were part of the Fires Premier Development League program before moving to Europe.
Saturdays match will kick off a big weekend for international soccer in Chicago. On Sunday Italys AS Roma and Polands Zaglebie Lubin will collide in another international friendly at Wrigley Field. Roma just signed U.S. national team player Michael Bradley, son of first Fire coach Bob Bradley.