The Chicago Fire made some late breaking news on Monday night when the Chicago Tribune reported that the club had signed Bastian Schweinsteiger. The club went on to confirm the news early on Tuesday morning.
Schweinsteiger will join the Fire immediately, and could make the squad for their April 1 match against the Montreal Impact if his visa and International Transfer Certificate go through without a hiccup.
On its face, this sounds like a good thing. The Fire, one of the worst teams in MLS over the last decade, has picked up a World Cup and Champions League winner with serious name recognition. But when you dive into the details, his signing doesn’t look particularly wise.
He’s making a lot of money
Schweinsteiger will make $4.5 million this season, which is significant investment for the Fire. They’ve been unwilling to splash the cash around recently and ranked second-to-last in attendance in 2016. They’re not the LA Galaxy, New York City FC, Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, or Atlanta United. They’re not going to commit $20 million or more to salaries like those teams can.
For one of the league’s richer teams, signing Schweinsteiger could be a worthwhile risk. But Chicago has to spend their money more carefully, and if they’re going to sink that much into one player, they should be pretty sure he’s going to produce. They can’t be sure about anything with Schweinsteiger, for a couple of reasons.
Let’s get into them.
He hasn’t been able to stay healthy
This is the last goal Schweinsteiger scored for Germany. He looks pretty lively here, right?
Well, he’d been on the pitch for two minutes at this point. The issue with Schweinsteiger isn’t his quality — he’s unquestionably and unequivocally one of the best all-around midfielders in the history of the sport — but his ability to stay healthy. This current season is Schweinsteiger’s fourth in a row where he hasn’t been on the pitch much. He was exiled during Manchester United’s preseason because José Mourinho didn’t think he could be counted on all season.
The Fire are gambling that Schweinsteiger can actually start most of their games. There’s plenty of reason to believe he won’t be up to that.
He’s a strange fit
While Schweinsteiger started his career as a winger, he’s played his best soccer as a central midfielder. He was a box-to-box midfielder at his peak, then later in his career, after losing some of his physical gifts, more of a deep-lying playmaker. But slower central midfielders usually struggle in that spot in MLS, so it’s a popular prediction that Schweinsteiger will move up the pitch and play as a No. 10.
Schweinsteiger can succeed in this spot. He’s reasonably creative and technically sound. He can probably adapt his game to play more through balls, especially at MLS level where the defenses aren’t quite as difficult to pass through as they are when you’re playing for Manchester United or Bayern Munich.
But if that’s what the Fire wanted ... why not just sign a true No. 10? You know, someone who’s a natural at the position, and who has a demonstrated history of creative passing from an advanced position? Schweinsteiger’s intelligent and talented enough to adapt to any position, but signing him to use him in one he hasn’t played before is strange.
Nothing the Fire brass says makes any sense
A month before the 2016 season kicked off, the Fire decided to trade attacking midfielder Harry Shipp.
While he’s not exactly a huge box office draw, Shipp grew up in Illinois and joined the Fire’s academy as a teenager. Among the few hardcore fans they do have, he was a popular player. He was also the team’s best player in 2014 and 2015. He was only 24 years old at the time.
So why ditch Shipp? Head coach Veljko Paunović said he didn’t fit the system, presumably because he’s not particularly athletic.
“We can’t say at that point we could guarantee for Harry that he was going to have the role that everybody and he expected. We had to decide obviously and make the best possible decision ... I think that the first reason, the technical reason, is why we decided to do that. For the style of play and for what we are looking for in that position is something that we decided was very important.”
One year later, Shipp’s old position is about to be taken up by a player who is slower than him and who runs much less. Apparently, fitting Paunović’s system doesn’t matter that much anymore, even though he’s still the coach.
The quotes that general manager Nelson Rodriguez offered up for the Tribune story are baffling too. “We’re adding someone who has won at every level, including the very highest levels, and has done so in a way that is consistent with our values,” Rodriguez told the paper. “We as a club will now be forced to hold ourselves to a higher standard, an accountability level. Previously, I think we could satisfy ourselves with what is known domestically. Now we need to rise to a standard that is set more internationally.”
This is complete nonsense. The Fire haven’t reached respectability on a domestic level since they signed Cuauhtémoc Blanco in 2007. They haven’t even reached respectability on a local level. Rodriguez is out here trying to sell us a house with spectacular interior decorating while asking us to ignore the cracked foundation.
Is Schweinsteiger a box office draw?
There are a lot of soccer fans in the Chicagoland area who have either never been to a Fire match or haven’t gone in a few years. A big-name superstar signing might attract them to a match. But then what?
Schweinsteiger isn’t flashy or an off-pitch celebrity, so he’s probably not going to hook any repeat customers unless the team around him is good enough to win games. MLS is not different from any other sport in that people show up to the games when their local team is competitive, but don’t bother when the team is bad for an extended period of time. The Fire made some good moves in the offseason, but the jury’s still out on whether they can compete for a playoff spot.
Plus, getting to Toyota Park requires one heck of a trek for most potential Fire fans. It’s in the southwest suburbs, a 30-minute drive from downtown in no traffic, and about a 45-minute drive on a normal day in Chicago. For many north-side residents, the drive is an hour-plus. The stadium is nowhere near a train station.
Schweinsteiger might get a lot of people through the gates one time, but if the Fire aren’t any good? It’ll be hard to convince people who are currently casual fans to make that trip repeatedly.
Still, this could go very well!
OK, let’s say you’re a Fire or Schweinsteiger fan. You don’t want to hear any of the reasons why this deal is doomed. You don’t care about whether or not the Fire are making a sound business decision. That’s fine, I understand. Let me give you the good news.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is a very good player. He’s probably more intelligent than any player in MLS and there aren’t many players with better technique. His half-season away from playing regularly might have let him heal up. There’s no reason to believe that a healthy Schweinsteiger wouldn’t be very effective, even if he’s put into a position he’s never played before. And if he plays in front of Dax McCarty and Juninho, he can probably get away with not running very often.
But while Schweinsteiger is an excellent player who might deserve the benefit of the doubt, his employers do not. The Fire haven’t won a playoff game since 2009. The owner who signed off on the Schweinsteiger acquisition has also inked failed DPs Nery Castillo, Sherjill MacDonald, Federico Puppo, Juan Luis Anangonó, and Kennedy Igboananike. They traded for DPs Gilberto, Freddie Ljungberg, and Álvaro Fernández, who all struggled in a Fire shirt.
If someone else signed Schweinsteiger, it might be fair to assume that they had a plan for him and a backup plan if things didn’t work out well. There’s no reason to assume that about the Fire. This deal looks like a dumb one, and should be assumed to be dumb until exhaustively proven otherwise.