In the parking lot at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview sits a giant, Ford F-150 pickup truck. It looks like something fit for a country music singer or maybe a Texas rancher, with giant tires, and an all-black trim kit. But this All-American truck doesn’t belong to an American at all. This hulking machine belongs to Chicago Fire captain Rafael Czichos.
“It’s a Ford F-150 black ops,” the German Czichos tells CHGO. “I just got it like two weeks ago. It’s a once in a lifetime thing, I think.”
Some Chicago Fire staffers have laughed at what seems like a peculiar choice of vehicle for a European footballer, but when you get to know Czichos, it starts to make sense. The centerback comes across as very serious–almost intimidating–in interviews, especially at first. Make no mistake, he takes soccer seriously, and he wants to win at everything. But off the field, he is, as one Fire staffer put it, “kind of a goof.”
“My neighbors, they say now you need to get a cowboy hat and some horns on the front,” he says.
Czichos, 32, even has a word for his deep dive into American culture.
“I call it integration,” he says with a smile. “I do my best. I really like it. The whole culture here, we love it.”
Life in Chicago
Czichos joined the Fire in January on a three-year deal from FC Köln, where he made 103 appearances in both the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga over the last four years. He was an undisputed starter, which made his move to MLS surprising for many. At first, Czichos came to Chicago alone, leaving his wife and four year old son behind at their home in Germany.
“It was stressful the first two months, three months,” Czichos says. “At first I was alone here, in a new city, new country.”
His family has since joined him, which was a big relief for the defender. After a long search they finally found a house in the suburbs, and they’re settling in nicely. Czichos is even making sure his son, who turns five next month, gets a taste of American culture. In addition to tennis and soccer (of course), he’s also playing tee ball.
“We feel really comfortable here, and we’re so happy to be here,” he says. “It is very different (than Germany), but we’ve been enjoying it a lot.”
On the pitch, Czichos has brought stability and calm to a back line that sorely needed it. As captain, he also brings a focused intensity before the matches. His pre-game speeches are fiery.
“We kicked their asses once, and we’re gonna fucking do it again. Let’s go win our home game!” he shouted in a huddle before a recent win over D.C. United. With Czichos, these speeches aren’t just empty words, and they’re enough to make anyone want to run through a wall for the captain.
The team is flying high after two straight wins, including a 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders at Soldier Field on Saturday, in which Czichos scored the team’s only goal–his second in the last three games. As a centerback, he really only creeps into the opposing team’s 18-yard-box on or immediately after a set piece, and on Saturday, he was able to deliver.
“I think it was a corner or something, that’s why I was in the offense because normally I stay a little bit deeper,” Czichos explains. “I stayed there and then I saw Fede (Navarro), that he has a lot of space and I’m really happy that he saw me. Nice cross and, yeah, the rest is history.”
To this point, Czichos has been the Fire’s best signing of the season, and perhaps one of the best in recent memory for Chicago. But, the season hasn’t gone as planned, to be sure. The Fire have crept back into the playoff picture, and are now just three points out of seventh place, but after a splashy offseason that included the signing of Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri, the Fire had bigger expectations than just scrapping and clawing their way into the postseason. Czichos has anchored a defense with a league leading nine clean sheets, but the back line has been prone to losing leads–as they did against the Columbus Crew a week ago. Up 2-0 at halftime, the Fire ended up losing 3-2.
“So after the Columbus game, it was really tough,” he says. “The two days after were really hard. We were so disappointed. But my son helps me to focus on other things next to the pitch. He’s a big soccer fan, he’s so excited to go to the games. I like when he’s in the stadium and he sees us winning, and believe me, he’s way happier when we win than when we lose.”
The Fire’s social media team caught the two playing on the pitch after a win over D.C. United back in June. In the video, the dad blocks his son’s first two attempts, before letting a pretty right-footed finish into the back of the net.
For Czichos, this is calculated. Sure, he wants his son to follow in his footsteps as a pro footballer, just not as a defender.
“We are practicing every day. I hope he’ll be a good player. I tell him every day please be a striker! It’s so much more fun, and you get more money. It’s like, you can be a big star, but as a defender it’s more difficult.
“Actually, I hate my job!” he continues, with a wry smile on his face. “As a defender, not as a soccer player. I would love to be a striker!”–to be fair, with two goals in three games, he’s starting to look a bit like a forward.
Czichos stays in touch with his old teammates at FC Köln, and keeps an eye on Werder Bremen, which was his favorite team growing up as a kid. But for now he’s focused on helping the Fire become a winner on the pitch, and becoming an All-American dad off of it.
“I think he’s as happy as he’s ever been before,” Czichos says of his little boy. “I asked him like two days ago ‘Do you want to go back to Germany?’ And he said ‘No, no, never, let’s stay here.’ So I think that’s the best sign.”
It’s a good sign for Fire fans, too.
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