Bastian Schweinsteiger adds substance to the hype in his Fire debut

Bastian Schweinsteiger adds substance to the hype in his Fire debut

Finally some substance to go with all the hype.

Bastian Schweinsteiger made his much-anticipated Chicago Fire debut in Saturday's 2-2 draw against Montreal. He started the match, played all 90 minutes and scored a goal on a header in the 17th minute.

The German played as one of three midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation, sliding in alongside Dax McCarty and Juninho. It was just his first appearance, but it was clear that Schweinsteiger can produce in MLS.

"You can just tell an amazing player when you see one," McCarty said. "Obviously he's capable of scoring goals, getting assists. More than that he put in a lot of work on the defensive side of the ball and a lot of the good attacking play we had went through him. Clearly he's going to help us."

Coach Veljko Paunovic didn't plan to have Schweinsteiger play the full game, but things changed with the Fire losing the lead in the 61st minute, Juninho getting a red card 10 minutes later and Michael de Leeuw suffering an injury in the second half after entering the match as a sub.

"What we planned is to manage the minutes, but obviously the circumstances dictated something different," Paunovic said. "We had to make our decision based on what was happening on the field. The red card and adjustments in the end. Michael's unfortunate injury. All these kind of things you cannot predict."

From a fitness standpoint, the German said earlier in the week that he felt good. After going the full 90 minutes, the 32-year-old was less positive, saying he sometimes felt tired.

"It's not easy when I got here four or five days ago, but it was OK," Schweinsteiger said. "I was actually prepared and also the training session here was very good so I will definitely also work on my fitness, to put more power and more energy into the game. I am actually satisfied. It was OK, but everyone can improve."

Schweinsteiger got his first taste of the physical nature of MLS in the second minute when he got tripped by Adrian Arregui, drawing his first foul in a league noted for its physical play. He drew a few more fouls including a yellow card foul from Adrian Arregui in the second half.

He took corner kicks from the left side and his first delivery found McCarty on the far side. McCarty's volley attempted was blocked. It was an obvious upgrade in corner delivery for a team which has had notable struggles from corners.

Good thing for the Fire that Schweinsteiger didn't take a corner kick from the right side as well though. He headed in David Accam's cross following a short corner from the right.

In the second half, Schweinsteiger began to show his ability to create chances. He made a few key passes to start breakaways, including the one that led to a red card on Victor Cabrera in the 81st minute.

Sliding into a starting role after just meeting his teammates four days earlier isn't ideal, but as McCarty put it, he knew what he was doing so it made things easier.

"Soccer is an easy game to understand if you play with good players," McCarty said. "He's a guy that doesn't get by on athleticism. He doesn't get by on speed. He gets by on his soccer brain. Obviously he's a little bit older now, but he's played at the highest level for a long time and he's still a world-class player. Any time you play with a guy that has a good soccer brain and sees the game the way that you see it, which I see the game the way he sees it and Juninho (too). I think all three of us see the game similarly. It's easy to play together.

"Obviously there's going to be a couple times where we're kind of in each other's way because we're still trying to figure out each other's tendencies. It's still early in the season so we've only known each other for a couple days. It'll be a work in progress, but I think for the most part we dominated the game in the midfield, but gave up some extremely soft, sloppy goals defensively to make this game a frustrating one."

It wasn't just Schweinsteiger's ability to fit in on the field, it was also his confidence in commanding the team. There were moments throughout the match when he was signaling to players where to pass to or to slow it down at times.

When asked about the style and level of MLS, Schweinsteiger didn't want to say much after his first game. He had mentioned the importance of better finishing from the team. Some of his passes led to breakaways that went unconverted.

"I think it's intense, but it's not easy after the first match to speak about the level of the MLS," Schweinsteiger said. "I am more focused on our game… that we improve, that we control the games, that we are effective, that we use our chances, that we stay compact. We didn't give so many chances away today, but they scored two goals. I like to have clean sheet and score two or three goals."

Schweinsteiger's debut came with a goal and a man of the match honor. If his first performance is anything to go by, the German will be a boost to results, even if that did not happen on Saturday.

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.