In Schweinsteiger, Chicago Fire Finds New Spark

By Kim Grindley

The loss was so painful he had to apologize.

It was a stunning result. 6-0. Coach Frank Yallop had no excuses. Sure, the Sounders were a formidable opponent but being booted out of the U.S. Open Cup like that was unacceptable.

The truth is, that Chicago Fire team was never expected to reach such heights. After all, they were missing their best player, Mike Magee. A hard-fought win against the Red Bulls only a few days before had signalled hope. Maybe they had simply run out of steam. That had to be it.

Yallop placated the fans with talk of a shot at the playoffs, now that the distraction of the U.S. Open Cup was gone.

They wouldn’t even make that.

Exactly a month earlier, Bastian Schweinsteiger was on top of the world. His team had won its first World Cup in 24 years. To do that, they narrowly beat an Argentina team featuring arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi.

Schweinsteiger was pivotal to that win. He marshalled the midfield with such tenacity that a profusely bleeding injury to his eye–an iconic image of that final–could not stop him.

As testament to his persona, after the whistle, Schweinsteiger consoled a distraught Messi. It wasn’t unusual though. He had done the same thing after various games in the tournament, including the 7-1 decimation of the hosts, Brazil.

A month later, he met former world number 1 tennis player, Ana Ivanovic, who would eventually become his wife.

Everything was going well for Schweinsteiger. Life was good.

The following year he’d win the German Bundesliga title for the eighth time. His trophy case was an embarrassment of riches. From the World Cup to the UEFA Champions League, the player nicknamed “Basti” had won almost everything there is to win.

But a fall from grace that would rival that of Fernando Torres was around the corner.

On July 13, 2015, exactly a year after he won the World Cup, Schweinsteiger signed with Manchester United. There, he would be reunited with his former coach Louis Van Gaal. Van Gaal, the famous Dutch coach with a death stare and a penchant for theatrics, had taken over a Manchester United side, looking to right a ship that was careening towards average.

The move seemed right. After all, Van Gaal was the one who “discovered” Schweinsteiger. Legend has it that when he coached Bayern he decided to play Schweinsteiger, then on the flanks, in the middle because he had too many options which included the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery in the wings.

In Schweinsteiger, Van Gaal found a player who was comfortable taking charge of the midfield, not afraid to do any dirty work which he coupled with a healthy dose of brilliance.

It made perfect sense that Van Gaal would be the one prying him away from the only club he had ever known. Schweinsteiger had spent his entire professional career, and a total of 17 years, at Bayern Munich.

But this is where the story turns sour.

The best way to characterize Schweinsteiger’s time at Manchester United is to use the word “forgettable.”

It started well for Schweinsteiger, featuring as fairly as often as he could, in a team with several options in midfield. His undying determination quickly made him a crowd favorite. He even scored the equalizer against Leicester CIty, a club on its own ascent to improbably greatness.

There were, however, early warning signs. After starting in only 13 of United’s 26 league matches, Van Gaal described himself as “let down” by the German superstar.

And then, the Special One stepped into the frame.

Van Gaal was let go as the club struggled to find the mojo that seemed to disappear with the departure of former manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

José Mourinho was a manager on a mission. Only months earlier, he had won the English Premier League with Chelsea with three games to spare. What followed was a spectacular downfall. The manager whose team lost only 3 matches the previous campaign ended up losing 9 of 16 matches and was promptly fired. Never one to bite his tongue, Mourinho blamed his players for an internal revolt that manifested itself when they quit trying to play for him.

At United, Mourinho could take no chances. Any player that seemed uncommitted to his vision would end up on the chopping block. That included Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was demoted from training with the first team to the U-23 squad. It wasn’t too long ago that the squad had spent time with another falling superstar–Radamel Falcao.

The treatment towards a player of Schweinsteiger’s caliber did not go unnoticed. His brother Tobias and ex-Chelsea and Bayern star Michael Ballack criticized Mourinho over the “lack of respect” afforded to Schweinsteiger.

But it would only get worse.

In September 2016, the club announced their financial results for the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2016. In it, they wrote off an “asset” (reportedly Schweinsteiger) worth £6.7million who was “no longer considered to be a member of the first team playing squad.”

Several months after, that freeze would have to thaw, as Mourinho found himself managing a team with a fast dwindling midfield. United’s lackluster play too forced the Special One to recall Schweinsteiger from training with the youth team. Though impressive performances followed, the damage was done.

By the end of March 2017, Schwenie was on his way to Chicago.

Mourinho would later apologize privately and publicly for his ill treatment of the German World Cup winner.

Two and a half years after Chicago’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss to the Sounders, Schweinsteiger’s signing could signal a turn of events for a team often seen as financially unable to compete with the rest of MLS.

The benefits should extend beyond ticket and jersey sales. In Schweinsteiger, the Chicago Fire have acquired a hardworking player who still has 3-5 good years left.

Once universally regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world, Schweinsteiger’s name is synonymous with the cliched reliability of German engineering. He’s a disciplined player who rarely loses the plot and is versatile thanks to his early history of playing on the flanks. The “Midfield Motor” has been known to spark fear in opponents because of his impressive ability to read the game and an excellent delivery. He controls every midfield he is a part of.

He never stops running. He’s a tireless midfielder who will fit very well with the scrappy MLS style of play. He is Gennaro Gattuso with more finesse. An older Pogba-lite without all the pomp and pageantry.  He could have sought unfathomable riches in China, but instead chose to turn Chicago into a contender.

Schweinsteiger’s arrival will provide an education to a Chicago Fire midfield starring Juninho and Dax McCarty–both brought in as part of an overhaul after difficult seasons peppered with disappointment and underachievement. The staff has changed too, with Yallop and his entire technical back office being relieved of their duties. Manager Veljko Paunović was appointed after winning the FIFA U-20 World Cup with Serbia in 2015.

Schweinsteiger has an opportunity to reinvent himself in a city synonymous with Michael Jordan, deep-dish pizza, and a Cubs team on the upswing after breaking nearly a century’s worth of curses. It is fitting that a team named after an event that destroyed and came to define a city would provide Schweinsteiger the new beginning he deserves. If past performances and his character are any proof, there is no doubt he will seize this chance.

If we ignore the noise and clueless reporters asking embarrassing questions about implausible scenarios, the outlook looks promising. Schweinsteiger will reward Chicago for providing him an opportunity to rebuild his confidence and reputation.

Following his debut, it looks like he’s already begun.

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