Fire all-stars have plenty of ties to Real Madrid ahead of MLS All-Star Game

Fire all-stars have plenty of ties to Real Madrid ahead of MLS All-Star Game

Since switching away from the East vs. West format, the MLS All-Star Game has always walked the line between pure entertainment and something resembling a competitive game.

Powerhouse teams from Europe in the middle of their preseason have taken on the MLS All-Stars. While the European visitors aren’t yet going full speed while they gear up for the upcoming season, the MLS All-Stars have something to prove with the pride of their league on the line.

This year, Chicago gets to watch the MLS All-Stars take on Real Madrid, winner of the past two UEFA Champions League titles, Wednesday at Soldier Field.

There’s a strong Chicago Fire contingent on the MLS All-Stars with the Fire coaching staff leading a team that includes four Fire players, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty. The group had its first training session together Monday at UIC.

“They are all very good players obviously, but also good persons and that makes it even more enjoyable,” Schweinsteiger said. “Of course you need a little bit of time to adjust to everyone to know exactly the passing and how the players want the ball. Every player you can see that is able to play soccer on the highest level and that’s what we need for Wednesday.”

While the players went through Fire coach Veljko Paunovic’s drills on Monday, it was clear training didn’t have the same feel to it as a regular training session for a club team would. The players are simply trying to get to know each other and trying to keep it loose as well.

“It’s fun,” Nikolic said. “It needs to be fun because I think we need to enjoy this moment, but also on the other hand in soccer you can not make the joke from these kind of games. You need to go hard, you need to give your maximum.”

Nikolic played Real Madrid twice in last season’s Champions League when he was still with Legia Warsaw. Nikolic’s Legia side lost in Madrid 5-1 before tying them 3-3 in Poland.

“It was a big experience for me to play in the Santiago Bernabeu,” Nikolic said. “I have a feeling at that time, that they are so good that in every single moment, when they want, they can score goals.”

Schweinsteiger, who is captaining the MLS All-Stars after winning a fan vote, has also had some clashes with Madrid over the years as a player for Bayern Munich. One of his former German national team teammates, Toni Kroos, is currently on Real Madrid.

“I always enjoyed playing against Real Madrid,” Schweinsteiger said. “They were always big matches and I’m looking forward (to the game) of course.”

Paunovic spent much of his playing career for Madrid’s local rival, Atletico Madrid. That rivalry has gained more of an international spotlight recently with the two Madrid clubs meeting in two Champions League finals in the past four years. Real Madrid won both of those, one in penalty kicks and one in extra time.

The ultra-competitive coach wouldn’t talk about the light-hearted aspect of the All-Star Game. He talked about Real Madrid like he will probably talk about the New England Revolution when the Fire turn their attention to that game, which will take place Saturday.

“For us, professionals, there are no exhibitions, no friendly games,” Paunovic said. “We always compete and the first thing that we are competing with is ourselves. When you’re on the field, when you feel the crowd, you feel you’re actually engaged 100 percent and you know you have to perform and you know you have to give your best. That’s the first challenge that you have to face. Then obviously you have an opponent like Real Madrid, there is no other team (like them). There are a lot of great teams in the world, but when you have the opportunity to play against Real Madrid, it’s an occasion that you just cannot let go.”

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question


As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?


Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.