Bastian Schweinsteiger talks about playing sweeper in the Fire's win at New England

Bastian Schweinsteiger talks about playing sweeper in the Fire's win at New England

The Chicago Fire keep winning and Bastian Schweinsteiger continues to be at the heart of the team’s success.

The German played a new role in the Fire 2-1 win Saturday at the New England Revolution. Instead of his typical central midfield spot, Schweinsteiger lined up between the two central defenders, Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira, as a sweeper or libero.

At its base, a sweeper was initially known as a last line of defense, someone who would clean up any attacks that got past other defenders. However, as the position evolved it started to be used more as a tool to create possession and attack play.

Schweinsteiger played this role for most of the match on Saturday. He had defensive responsibilities, largely marking New England striker Kei Kamara, but also started most of the Fire’s build up play. He became the point man who started and controlled things when the Fire were in possession.

In the Wikipedia entry for sweeper, the first player named is Franz Beckenbauer. Beckenbauer, who finished his career with the New York Cosmos in 1983, helped Germany win the 1974 World Cup and is widely regarded as one of the best players of his generation. He was one of the key players in changing the sweeper position from a solely defensive role into one that has attacking responsibilities as well.

Beckenbauer retired before Schweinsteiger was born so Schweinsteiger never got to see him play live, but has seen some old videos of him on TV. When asked about playing Beckenbauer’s position, Schweinsteiger said it’s a “big honor,” but hadn’t thought about that previously.

“I can’t really speak about it because I didn’t know exactly,” Schweinsteiger said. “I knew that he was also playing in the center sometimes as a libero or a midfield player, but I think a lot of teams are actually playing this system. I think Juventus, Chelsea, there are some teams, even Bayern Munich, that are playing it. It’s just a different playing style. Some more defenders, some more midfield players so it depends a little, but I like it.”

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said the decision to go with the move was based on a few factors, mostly New England’s narrow attack with Kamara, Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez as the primary attackers.

“Three guys that play very narrow,” Paunovic said. “We thought that could be a good solution. Obviously he has qualities to play (as a sweeper). The experience, the vision as a midfielder and I spoke with him and he did play in the past that position. He agreed also that he could play it because we also needed it for this game.”

Paunovic said the plan was in place in advance of the game and he liked how it looked in practice. He called it “another weapon” that the Fire can use in the future.

“We played out of the back,” Paunovic said. “We could see clearly that he is our man that created superiority for the build up. Everything went well.”

It doesn’t sound like utilizing Schweinsteiger in this way is something the Fire will use regularly, but it could be used again.

“Sometimes you have to play different,” Schweinsteiger said. “We always try to make it difficult for the opponent obviously. That’s the goal in every match. It always changes. It depends. Sometimes we play like this, sometimes we play different. Let’s see what’s next.”

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.