Fire

Fire all-stars have plenty of ties to Real Madrid ahead of MLS All-Star Game

Since switching away from the East vs. West format, the MLS All-Star Game has always walked the line between pure entertainment and something resembling a competitive game.

Powerhouse teams from Europe in the middle of their preseason have taken on the MLS All-Stars. While the European visitors aren’t yet going full speed while they gear up for the upcoming season, the MLS All-Stars have something to prove with the pride of their league on the line.

This year, Chicago gets to watch the MLS All-Stars take on Real Madrid, winner of the past two UEFA Champions League titles, Wednesday at Soldier Field.

There’s a strong Chicago Fire contingent on the MLS All-Stars with the Fire coaching staff leading a team that includes four Fire players, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty. The group had its first training session together Monday at UIC.

“They are all very good players obviously, but also good persons and that makes it even more enjoyable,” Schweinsteiger said. “Of course you need a little bit of time to adjust to everyone to know exactly the passing and how the players want the ball. Every player you can see that is able to play soccer on the highest level and that’s what we need for Wednesday.”

While the players went through Fire coach Veljko Paunovic’s drills on Monday, it was clear training didn’t have the same feel to it as a regular training session for a club team would. The players are simply trying to get to know each other and trying to keep it loose as well.

“It’s fun,” Nikolic said. “It needs to be fun because I think we need to enjoy this moment, but also on the other hand in soccer you can not make the joke from these kind of games. You need to go hard, you need to give your maximum.”

Nikolic played Real Madrid twice in last season’s Champions League when he was still with Legia Warsaw. Nikolic’s Legia side lost in Madrid 5-1 before tying them 3-3 in Poland.

“It was a big experience for me to play in the Santiago Bernabeu,” Nikolic said. “I have a feeling at that time, that they are so good that in every single moment, when they want, they can score goals.”

Schweinsteiger, who is captaining the MLS All-Stars after winning a fan vote, has also had some clashes with Madrid over the years as a player for Bayern Munich. One of his former German national team teammates, Toni Kroos, is currently on Real Madrid.

“I always enjoyed playing against Real Madrid,” Schweinsteiger said. “They were always big matches and I’m looking forward (to the game) of course.”

Paunovic spent much of his playing career for Madrid’s local rival, Atletico Madrid. That rivalry has gained more of an international spotlight recently with the two Madrid clubs meeting in two Champions League finals in the past four years. Real Madrid won both of those, one in penalty kicks and one in extra time.

The ultra-competitive coach wouldn’t talk about the light-hearted aspect of the All-Star Game. He talked about Real Madrid like he will probably talk about the New England Revolution when the Fire turn their attention to that game, which will take place Saturday.

“For us, professionals, there are no exhibitions, no friendly games,” Paunovic said. “We always compete and the first thing that we are competing with is ourselves. When you’re on the field, when you feel the crowd, you feel you’re actually engaged 100 percent and you know you have to perform and you know you have to give your best. That’s the first challenge that you have to face. Then obviously you have an opponent like Real Madrid, there is no other team (like them). There are a lot of great teams in the world, but when you have the opportunity to play against Real Madrid, it’s an occasion that you just cannot let go.”