COVID-19 hanging over Fire home debut

The Fire announced Friday night that a first-team player has tested positive for COVID-19, but said their game Tuesday with FC Cincinnati is still scheduled.

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Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Fire Owner and Chairman Joe Mansueto and Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber pose for a portrait after announcing the Fire will be returning to Soldier Field.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Slightly more than five months after it was supposed to happen, the Fire are scheduled to play a home game at Soldier Field. And like so much else in 2020, this event will have another COVID-19 subplot.

The Fire announced Friday night that a first-team player has tested positive for COVID-19. Per a statement, all other players and club members have returned consecutive negative tests. Tuesday night’s lakefront debut against FC Cincinnati is still scheduled.

Previously, the Fire had no positive tests.

According to the Fire, the player is asymptomatic and self-isolated under a “strict and detailed” protocol. The unnamed player did not travel with the Fire for Thursday’s game at Columbus, and will stay in isolation until being cleared. The Fire medical staff is monitoring the player, who is being tested daily.

Assuming Tuesday’s game is played, the match will have this news attached, and feel much different than the originally scheduled March 21 opener against Atlanta United.

Instead of being on track for a sellout crowd, the Fire won’t be welcoming fans into the stadium for at least the next two games there. During a recent interview with the Sun-Times well before Friday’s announcement, team president Nelson Rodriguez expanded on why the Fire didn’t pursue opening their doors to supporters for the first phase of the restarted season.

Health and safety were prominent concerns, applying not just to fans but also the participants and workers required to hold an event. While stressing that teams in other markets may have different circumstances that might lead to other decisions, the Fire chose to support local leadership and wanted to be sensitive to a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases.

The Fire also spoke to some fans and supporters about their desire to attend games and applied that input toward the decision. There was also a practical concern, considering the current Fire brass hasn’t staged a match at Soldier Field.

“We haven’t even had a rep,” Rodriguez said. “To have a rep with these circumstances, it felt like it might be a good idea for us to try to walk ourselves through some games at Soldier Field before inviting in more people.”

Unfortunately, the Fire are getting “reps” at something else: containing COVID-19. The Fire are beginning daily testing of the first team and soccer staff, and have implemented contact tracing.

During a media availability Tuesday, Fire coach Raphael Wicky was asked about the precautions players are taking during the pandemic.

“I think the players know that they are responsible for their own and for others and they want to live a normal life but they also know they are athletes and they want to play, so certain things, they have to follow the rules,” Wicky said. “They have to avoid going into big crowds. They have to have social distancing and the masks and like I say, so far, we never had a positive test, so I think the team is doing well. But we have to keep doing that. We have to follow all the rules and be respectful of all that.”

NOTE: The Fire acquired 19-year-old defender Carlos Teran via transfer from Colombian first-division club Envigado FC. He’s under contract through 2024 with a club option for 2025. The team also put goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm and midfielder Luka Stojanovic on the season-ending injury list.

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