Eyeing greater ambition and a changed culture, Chicago springs for Schweinsteiger

Tuesday March 21st, 2017

Measure the move by any of several germane metrics, and the Chicago Fire’s signing of veteran German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger appears surprising or even confusing. Consider his age. While many MLS teams are turning toward younger Designated Players who are in (or entering) their prime—men who represent an obvious long-term investment—Schweinsteiger will be 33 this summer. The average age of the league’s other 13 new DPs is 25.3, and the oldest just turned 30.

Consider his form. Schweinsteiger was instrumental in Germany’s World Cup triumph in 2014, but that appeared to be his zenith. The Bayern Munich legend transferred to Manchester United in 2015, suffered a knee injury toward the end of his first season and then was cast aside by José Mourinho. Schweinsteiger has appeared in just four United matches in 2016-17.

Consider the reported salary—$4.5 million for just one season (there’s a mutual option for 2018). He’s the most expensive player in Fire history and although there was no transfer fee paid, that still represents a significant outlay for a player who won’t be in Chicago long enough to be built around. He’s also not going to be worth much on the global market.

Consider his popularity. He’s an icon in Germany and highly respected around the world, but Schweinsteiger isn't the sort of transcendent figure who will lead to sellouts or galvanize the American public.

Or consider the Fire’s needs. This is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012. That’s an almost impossible run of failure in MLS. Charged with setting a new course, GM Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic accelerated the overhaul this winter and, among others, acquired veteran holding/defensive midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho. Schweinsteiger also is a center midfielder and not a traditional No. 10. He covers ground, roams box-to-box and once shaped games at the highest level with his intelligence and relentless work ethic. Does he even fit in the team Rodriguez and Paunovic have built?

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There was considerable skepticism late Monday night–when the Chicago Tribune reported the signing–through Tuesday afternoon, when Rodriguez spoke with reporters for more than an hour, laying out the case for Schweinsteiger. It turns out the Fire, who have started this season 1-1-1, are prioritizing another kind of metric.

“We don’t look at ethnicity. We don’t look at size. We don’t look at age. We look at, are they good players? Are they good people? Do they fit with us?” Rodriguez asked. “We and the soccer public across all of America and Canada has figured out that you can’t pander to them through ethnicity. That’s the way to win a one-day headline and a one-day story, but it won’t be the way to win their hearts and minds long-term. People respond to good soccer—winning soccer—to commitment and passion on the field that matches that which happens in the stands.”

There hasn’t been much winning or positive passion in Chicago, and it's there Rodriguez believes Schweinsteiger—whom the Fire have been pursuing since the middle of last year—will have an impact. Leadership, experience, savvy, versatility: those can’t be measured directly. They’re intangible but vital, and if the club got this right, critics and fans eventually will see them reflected in the standings and the stands.

“It’s not often you can add a player of Bastian’s pedigree, but more importantly someone we feel is the perfect embodiment of the club we are and the club we continue to aspire to be," Rodriguez said. "Bastian is a gentlemen, a sportsman—but no one doubts his abilities, his character, and no one can take away the championship nature of his performances.”

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The fact that it’s been a while since he’s offered up one of those performances apparently is of no concern to Rodriguez, who said Schweinsteiger has trained, played well when called upon and may actually have benefited from recent rest. The GM added that United initially was “reluctant” to let the German go because they still considered him part of their plans. In the Fire’s view, Schweinsteiger remains world-class. And Rodriguez rattled off a list of older champions, from Michael Jordan and Tom Brady to MLS Cup winners like David Beckham and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, as he argued that age really is just a number.

Schweinsteiger will be expected to make a major impact both on the field and off. Rodriguez broke it down.

In uniform, it appears Schweinsteiger will have an advanced, central role above McCarty and Juninho (assuming both remain in the lineup). Newcomer Nemanja Nikolic, the 29-year-old DP striker, will be up front and Ghanaian DP David Accam likely will stay on the left flank. Where that leaves Arturo Alvarez and more significantly, Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw, will be up to Paunovic. Over time, Rodriguez said, Paunovic wants his team to be versatile and adaptable—just as Schweinsteiger has been.

“He doesn’t have the same speed and the same physical elements to his game as he did … but the rest of his game has grown,” Rodriguez said.

“When we looked to improve last year’s team, among the elements we looked to improve was our ability to not only hold the ball-have [better pass] completion percentage and overall possession advantage, but also the ability to split lines. Get behind lines,” Rodriguez continued. “And Bastian, from a wide range of positions, from a wide range of distances—short and long—can unlock defenses and we believe he will be very helpful in that regard. Beyond that, he’s a player that you can play the ball to under pressure with comfortable assurance that he’s going to be very difficult to dispossess, if at all.”

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Rodriguez stressed that not every attacking catalyst is going to fit the classic No. 10 mold.

“There’s a current trend that the only way to [sign] a successful No. 10 is to go to Argentina and find the No. 10 fairy tree,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not saying Pauno is going to play him in the 10 role. There’s a lot of different types of playmakers that can impact a game. Andrés Iniesta: I don’t think anyone considers him a 10, yet he finds a way to impact a game. Luka Modric finds a way to impact a game.”

Schweinsteiger’s style doesn’t fit a narrow definition, Rodriguez said. And that means his responsibilities and influence should continue beyond the final whistle as well. There isn’t a winning culture in Chicago. Rodriguez and Paunovic have just a year on the job, and they’re not in uniform. Standards can’t be set only from above. And so Juninho and McCarty, who have combined to win three MLS Cups and four Supporters' Shields, were signed. Nikolic owns three league champion medals from his time in Hungary and Poland. And then there’s Schweinsteiger, who is among the most decorated men of his generation. The Fire said no player has entered MLS with more titles to his credit.

“He improves our locker room and our quest to continue to not only add a leader, but a role model,” Rodriguez said, adding that Schweinsteiger’s “winners mentality” eventually will infect the squad and help “convert draws into wins and losses into draws.” The Fire had one of the youngest teams in MLS last season. The club offered experience to newer players and positioned itself to sign the likes of McCarty, Juninho, Nikolic and Schweinsteiger. Now it’s ready to take the next step.

Rodriguez said Schweinsteiger “comes with an entirely different standard and level of excellence and expectation, and this is a call to our entire club that we need to step up our game and meet that challenge and meet that level … The fact that we felt we found a willing contributor, someone who wanted to collaborate, someone who had the generosity of being a giver who’s going to help us achieve our owner’s vision for the club of excellence—of respect in all matters—of integrity and dignity.”

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That’s a lot to put on someone’s shoulders, even if those shoulders have lifted a World Cup, a Club World Cup, a European Cup, eight Bundesliga trophies, seven German Cups and more. Schweinsteiger was apprised of the Fire’s situation and trajectory during the months of courtship and appears to be eager for the challenge and change of scenery.

That change could happen in a matter of days. Rodriguez said the club is still working on securing Schweinsteiger’s visa. If it comes through soon, the player may arrive as early as the middle of next week and he theoretically could be in uniform on April 1 when Chicago hosts Montreal and their sensational 32-year-old midfielder, Ignacio Piatti. 

“We understand Bastian will need some time,” to acclimate and regain match fitness, Rodriguez said. But soon after, Schweinsteiger’s impact will have to start becoming evident. The Fire’s season and perhaps the regime of Rodriguez and Paunovic depend on it. They have total faith.

“When I was granted the opportunity to fulfill my dream job and take this one, I also knew that given my age, this would be it. If we didn't achieve success, the likelihood of me being able to stay in professional soccer would be severely diminished,” Rodriguez said. “Ultimately, we’ll be judged by wins and losses. However, I have thought about this proposition of being the chief decision [of my tenure], if you will, and I would say this: if I have to go down, and I go down with one of the greatest champions in the history of soccer, I’ll feel pretty good that I made a good choice. But I suspect Bastian is going to make me a better pro, a better general manager—going to make us all better. And in the end, I think we’ll look at this and say this was the signal moment where our ambition and our vision caught up with our hopeful execution to make us a global club.”

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