Fire

After always being on dominant teams, Bastian Schweinsteiger is adjusting to the parity of MLS

After always being on dominant teams, Bastian Schweinsteiger is adjusting to the parity of MLS

Parity is one of the defining characteristics of Major League Soccer, but Bastian Schweinsteiger's former teams knew nothing of parity.

Before joining the Chicago Fire, Bastian Schweinsteiger had only played for the biggest teams in the world. In his club career he started with Bayern Munich and later joined Manchester United. Both are in the top handful of clubs in terms of success, prestige and popularity. Throw in the German national team, which has made the last three semifinals in both the Euros and the World Cup, and Schweinsteiger is used to winning.

So now that Schweinsteiger is with the Fire in MLS, a league which doesn’t have any teams as dominant or as consistent as Bayern or Germany, it’s an adjustment in terms of expectations.

“Of course it’s something maybe new, but I knew it in advance that it’s not going to happen that we win every match,” Schweinsteiger said after training on Tuesday. “It’s a new team. We have to just work on our game style.”

Schweinsteiger was recently quoted as saying the difference in quality between MLS and his previous leagues is “huge.” That won’t surprise anyone familiar with MLS, but some of the quotes do standout.

“It can be frustrating on the pitch at times when things discussed [in the team meeting] are not implemented or when somebody loses a ball or just does not have an eye for the teammate,” Schweinsteiger said in the story on ESPNFC.

Schweinsteiger also said “too many balls are lost” during games. These statements have garnered national, and even global, headlines.

That may be worth fretting over if the statements weren’t universally agreed upon as accurate. MLS is not as good as the Premier League or the Bundesliga and the Fire are not Bayern Munich or Manchester United.

There is no cause for concern that Schweinsteiger is regretting his move or is causing a rift with his teammates. He says he is enjoying his new home and his new team. Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said on Tuesday that Schweinsteiger has “raised the level of our team significantly.”

Coach Veljko Paunovic has often talked about the character that Schweinsteiger brings to the team and said he wants Schweinsteiger to be a role model for the team.

“It’s very important to have the model, the player, the champion that can also help the team on and off the field where he can influence the guys with his work ethic, with his commitment, his experience obviously and charisma that he has,” Paunovic said. “He’s a very charismatic guy and the smile, he is coming everyday with a smile to the practice and that gives the positive impact on the locker room and we also know that it’s not always just smiling, it’s (working) hard.”

The Fire went winless on a three-game road trip, finally getting a point in a draw at LA on Saturday. Schweinsteiger hasn’t had many three game winless runs in his career, but odds are he will see more this season.

“I would love to win matches, but last year I think Seattle around the first half of matches they were not so good and in the end they won,” Schweinsteiger said on Tuesday. “So it is possible, right? Our position is OK. I think of course we could have won against Montreal or LA so then it would be a little bit different. We are looking from match to match. I think that this is more important to focus on our game. It’s more important for me and when we work on our deficiencies, things which we are not doing well, when we work on that we will play better and have more victories and it will automatically come that we will be higher in the standings.”

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

10-22_dynamo_matchup_mls_fire_blank.jpg

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

rodriguez-1020.jpg
USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.