Fire

Patience and persistence were required for Fire to sign Bastian Schweinsteiger

Patience and persistence were required for Fire to sign Bastian Schweinsteiger

For many, the Bastian Schweinsteiger to Chicago Fire rumors started with a meeting in Manchester.

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic was spotted meeting with Schweinsteiger in Manchester in November. The tabloid, TMZ-like nature of how the European media covers player moves and rumors had an effect on the Fire.

However, the Fire's pursuit of Schweinsteiger started months before that. MLSsoccer.com's Sam Stejskal chronicled the timeline and how the Fire convinced the German star to come to Chicago.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said in a conference call on Tuesday that the first pursuit of him "came late summer, early fall of last year." Things did not progress initially.

"At that time, while granted permission to make contact with the player's representatives and the player, we were kindly asked to wait and see how things went," Rodriguez said. "Ultimately we pursued Bastian harder because he is rather singular, he is rather unique in all of that vast experience that he brings along with the attitude and willingness to share it."

As the 2016-17 Premier League season started and Jose Mourinho took over at Manchester United, Schweinsteiger found himself on the outs. He ended up playing no league matches and four cup matches this season for Man U.

Rodriguez and Paunovic saw an opportunity with Schweinsteiger not playing.

"We worked on our weaknesses last season and one of them was adapting in our midfield," Paunovic said. "We had the idea with him when we saw everything was happening that he was not playing. We reached out to the team, Manchester United. We asked for the permission to speak with him and from there we started a relationship with Bastian and it went well. We were working a long time on his acquisition and we are very happy that we could make it done."

Reports of Schweinsteiger training with the Man U reserves signaled a likely departure, but he was not ready to give up.

"Bastian had nothing but good things to say about his experience at United, about his relationship with his teammates and his coaching staff," Rodriguez said. "He clearly has a great affection for the fans as well. I'm sure knowing the competitor that he is, although not wanting to speak for him, of course I imagine he felt he could have played more, should have played more, wanted to play more. But he did not exhibit frustration. In fact, some of the length of this process was due to his insistence to want to remain at United and prove himself even more valuable than he was able to show."

According to Stejskal, the infamous meeting in Manchester between Paunovic and Schweinsteiger was four hours long and the Fire were hoping to land Schweinsteiger in January. While the chances of that seemed to fade, Man U found some moderate use for him.

He still wasn't playing in the Premier League, but Schweinsteiger was high enough on the depth chart to play in some cup matches in January, including playing all 90 minutes and scoring against Wigan in the FA Cup on Jan. 29.

The Fire brass remained persistent in their pursuit of Schweinsteiger. Rodriguez said on Fire Weekly on Wednesday that they checked in with Schweisteiger about once a month, but as the Fire's season neared and ultimately began, things were getting tight. Rodriguez has said multiple times that he isn't fond of introducing players in the middle of the MLS season, saying it is difficult to fully integrate players midseason and didn't want to have to do so with Schweinsteiger.

"We would have preferred it earlier," Rodriguez said. "We would have preferred it before the window closed in England and in January and in preseason. But United, with good reason, was reluctant to let him leave. They were still competing on all fronts and they still regarded Bastian as a valuable member of their club. I think over time maybe we were able to wear them down a little bit with our persistence. Their calendar probably is thinning out as we get closer to the end of the year, but we did reach a point where we said 'It has to be now or it wouldn't happen.'"

Another meeting took place, according to Stejskal, and this time it convinced Schweinsteiger to get on board. After getting United to let him leave, the deal was on. Rodriguez said on Fire Weekly that "it all came together in early March."

"Bastian is a special case, again as a person and as a player, and so not wanting to say an ultimatum because I think that would be unfair and untrue, we made it clear that if we couldn't close it now, then we would likely move on," Rodriguez said.

Now Schweinsteiger is set to join the Fire and could do so possibly as early as the middle of next week, pending his visa, in advance of the April 1 home game against Montreal.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

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USA TODAY

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.