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.”

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.