Raphael Wicky is new to Chicago but thanks to the coronavirus shutdown, he has no one to coach: 'A lot of guys on my staff, they are lonely'
For the past 13 months, time has been in short supply for Raphael Wicky.
When he was hired as manager of the U.S. U17 national team in March 2019, Wicky had less than two months to prepare his side ahead of qualifiers for that year's U17 World Cup. When he took over as manager of the Chicago Fire in late December, he had barely three weeks to put his staff together before the start of training camp. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down MLS and the rest of the sports world, Wicky is busy thinking of how to fill the days. The Swiss-born manager insists that he and his staff are busy, but it's a forced busyness rather than the adrenaline rush leading up to a league match.
"The emotional side is not there. There's nothing. You can't fake that," Wicky told ESPN. "It feels like you're somewhere in an offseason but still following and working on certain projects with the staff, analyzing clips, analyzing games. And it's without knowing when do we start again.
"We also have to take a step back and say there are more important things right now than doing what we love to do, which is playing football and being on the field of the team."
The shutdown came at an inopportune time for the Fire. Although Chicago secured just one point from its first two games, both of those matches took place on the road, with the home opener -- and much-vaunted return to Soldier Field -- still to come. The Fire looked decent in those matches and were hard-luck losers against defending MLS Cup holders, the Seattle Sounders. Wicky also had his complete roster together for the first time ahead of what should have been a match against Orlando City.
Now, there are daily calls with GM Georg Heitz, technical director Sebastian Pelzer and senior director of football operations Eddie Rock. Four or five days a week, Wicky checks in with his staff. There are also video calls with players, limited to about four to six players per call.
There are several motivations for checking in. One is to check that the players are doing what they can to stay fit.
"This is the only thing you can control," Wicky said of the fitness work. "It's not in our hands, the virus. So we can control what we are doing. How are we going to follow the program that our staff gave you? Once we get back onto the field or in the training style, that at least we have a certain fitness level. So that's important, and the players do well so far."
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Then there is tactical analysis to make sure everyone's soccer brain is staying as sharp as possible. There is time to delve deeply, not only in his own side's performance but also in those of other teams, even if the sample of two games for each MLS team is relatively small.
"In the daily business, we usually don't have time to analyze certain things, maybe analyzing all the different teams, different systems," he said. "Whatever topics in football that you don't really have time [for] in the daily environment, we try to work on them also. Give each other some tasks to do, and that keeps us busy."
A less overt motivation is to check on the mental health of everyone. The number of players and staff new to Chicago this season stretches into double digits. That unfamiliarity with a new city can add to the feelings of isolation that come with shelter-in-place orders.
"A lot of guys on my staff, they are lonely, they don't have a wife, or their wife is not here yet, they have no kids," said Wicky, whose wife, Laura, is with him in Chicago. "So they're actually alone somewhere in an apartment in a city, but they don't know anyone. So it's also to stay in touch and to really look after each other. The players are in the same boat as we are."
There have been times in Wicky's managerial career when he had time on his hands. After being let go by FC Basel in July 2018, he was out of work until he latched on with the U.S. U17s -- a period of a little more than seven months. At first glance, the challenge of staying sharp as a manager seems to have some overlap with what he went through then. There was time to delve into coaching aspects in more detail and broaden his coaching knowledge. But the physical isolation that the pandemic has imposed makes what Wicky is currently going through a different proposition.
"In that time, everyone was free to move," Wicky said. "I was able to go and watch different clubs, different cultures. I was able to actually go and see sessions. I was able to do whatever I wanted. No, this is a completely new situation for everybody."
There is also mental fatigue that comes with working amid shelter-in-place orders. The added time can play tricks on one's brain. You think you should be working more, even as the challenge of existing under such conditions adds stress. Wicky is aware of those impositions as well.
"I think it's still important that you have a balance and that you also say, 'OK, now I'm taking this time to relax a little bit from everything,'" he said. "I think that's important for your mind."
Last week, sources told ESPN that MLS would postpone matches through June 8. Earlier that week, commissioner Don Garber told ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman that the league is looking into playing games behind closed doors, and the current training moratorium is likely to be extended.
For Wicky, it looks like time will be an unwanted luxury for a while longer.