There are two ways to approach the appearance of a player such as Bastian Schweinsteiger in Major League Soccer, because there are two ways these designated player things go:
It can either flop, or at least have a less desirous impact than originally intended and in the process turn the player into a hood ornament. It can become a ‘Bloody Big Deal’ and drag down a franchise or create an ongoing sense of crisis and distraction. It can be misconstrued or miscast if careful attention isn’t being paid; witness the failure to understand what role David Beckham could actually play on the field when he was with the Los Angeles Galaxy, or what his exact strengths were. It can be a half-empty thing, but if it’s done right, with a plan and a purpose? Then it can pay off handsomely and set a franchise on the right path.
So you’d think people would stow the skepticism and let the Chicago Fire’s acquisition of the venerable former German skipper and World Cup winner breathe a little bit.
There is of course a financial and lifestyle payoff for the 32-year-old midfielder after two years of being collateral damage during an unusually wayward period at Manchester United. But there could also very well be a payoff for the Fire, who have made the playoffs once in the past seven seasons and managed just 15 wins in the previous two combined.
The Fire suffered their second loss of the season Friday night at BMO Field, and their first in four matches since Schweinsteiger joined them. Schweinsteiger is being used as an attacking midfielder by Fire coach Veljko Paunovic – wouldn’t that cause eyes to pop in Europe – and he has two goals but Friday he was largely limited to some splendidly weighted passes that went unreceived and a great deal of running after a second-half shift in strategy designed to create overloads on the outside.
Schweinsteiger was substituted out in the 84th minute after flipping Toronto FC’s Jonathan Orosio on the sidelines, resulting in Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley squaring up to him. Schweinsteiger seemed bemused as he sat down, and made a beeline for the officials at the conclusion of the match to complain about what seemed to be clear handball on Justin Morrow in the 72nd minute and a free kick that Sebastian Giovinco converted for Toronto FC’s third goal in the 82nd minute.
“Strange game,” the World Cup winner said later, shaking his head. “Today … something was missing. If we score that first goal, the game is changed and if the penalty is called it’s a different game. But sometimes in soccer, it’s very close. Today it was not on our side.
“We tried something (in the second half) and it was good. We wanted to make some overloads and in my eyes we should have used it better. We should have used the gaps a little and played the ball in the right moments but these are things we can do to improve.”
A few years back, I spoke to former NASL goalkeeper and current television analyst Shep Messing and former Red Bull technical director Andy Roxburgh for the Globe and Mail about the successful transition being made by striker Thierry Henry – why that worked and some others didn’t.
Roxburgh said he believed the success of the overseas player depended on the young talent around him, due to the payroll discrepancies of MLS teams. He said that Henry’s biggest strength in helping the transition was that for an attacking player he had an innate sense of “when to lengthen a game,” when to “walk it and when to stop it.”
Messing noted there is a challenge inherent in playing alongside players of lesser calibre, and chuckled about how he would watch Pele with the ball and imagine he was thinking “’OK, I have, maybe three guys I can pass to, here.'”
“We weren’t ready for him,” Messing said.
The Fire have taken steps to ensure that isn’t the case with Schweinsteiger. In fact, the club acquired two veteran MLS midfielders (Juninho and the underrated Dax McCarty, a 2016 MLS all-star with the New York Red Bulls) to ensure that Schweinsteiger has a supporting cast that is mature enough to help him adjust on the run. Because that’s what has also made his strong MLS start so surprising: he’s not yet 100 per cent fit, despite his willingness to assume a more attacking role and move freely from side to side at the request of his coach.
“I didn’t have a proper pre-season, so it’s not so easy but I’m trying to create some things and give some ideas,” he said. “It takes time to become 100 per cent.”
Schweinsteiger has certainly fit in as a citizen. He has yet to make one of those leg-numbing MLS road trips – this was a short jaunt on a commercial flight – and he has been good-natured about that now-infamous question at his introductory news conference about whether he planned on bringing a “World Cup” to the Fire or the social media sensation that was a picture of him taking a picture of some of his teammates and a fellow passenger on the flight to Toronto at the request of a fellow passenger – said passenger apparently unaware which of the players had the highest Q factor. And, yes, you can count Schweinsteiger as another player impressed by the atmosphere at BMO Field.
“The anthem,” he said with a nod, referring to the manner in which a good-sized crowd had sung O Canada.
Strange. There is still a segment of North American soccer fans who chafe at the notion of a player in his 30s coming over here to play out the string, as if it’s some kind of insult to the integrity of MLS. I have little problem with the notion of a player with a glorious international pedigree finishing his career here. Roll your eyes if you must, but when I watch Schweinsteiger on the pitch I’m not thinking about the shell of the player who was misused at Manchester United by Louis Van Gaal and indelicately yet justifiably tossed over the side by Jose Mourinho. I’m thinking of the player who helped Bayern Munich rule the Bundesliga.
Mostly, I’m thinking of heartbreak: of Euro 2004, 2008 and 2012 and the two World Cups before 2014, when Schweinsteiger’s last glorious stand helped Die Mannschaft in their hour of need against Argentina: Toni Kroos ineffective, Sami Khedira incapacitated by a knee injury and Christoph Kramer knocked out by an Ezequiel Garay shoulder. There was Schweinsteiger, often criticized for lacking the royal jelly demanded of German skippers; a guy that head coach Jurgen Low either thought was beyond his best-by date or, at best, simply didn’t trust for 90 minutes; a spent force. In a filthy uniform, crusted with blood from a knock from Sergio Aguero, lying on the ground breathing deeply, knees raised, arm draped over his head.
As for MLS? I don’t know, I think it says good things about where the league is and where it’s going that a player such as Schweinsteiger is willing to come over and contribute and that he can do it even if he is a less dynamic force of nature than he was in his youth. That it’s taken him four matches to score one more goal than he did in 18 Premier League matches with Manchester United? That’s not an indictment; he doesn’t view it as such and neither should anyone else.
Shortly after his arrival, Schweinsteiger said in an interview that: “This isn’t a one-man team … soccer’s not a one-man game.” Everything he has done on and off the field since then suggests he’s at peace, that he’s willing to play a new role. He is, in short, a respectful addition to a league that learned to get out of its own way long before some of its fans and commentators. The least we can do is give him a chance. The least we can do is let it breathe.