Schweinsteiger can't be fix-all for Fire franchise still in need of reinvention
Major League Soccer’s Designated Player policy recently marked its 10th birthday, a startling milestone for those who remember when the so-called “Beckham Rule” was a bold new experiment with a cloudy future in 2007.
Once towering financial commitments that some clubs avoided altogether for years, Designated Players are today strewn across MLS in variety of roles and circumstances. The DP tag has even been around long enough for some of its contemporary iterations to take on a “throwback” character compared to the rapidly-evolving modern norms.
So it appears with the Chicago Fire’s signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger.
As gamely as Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez tried to maintain that this acquisition is all about what the German midfielder brings on the field, this is an old-school DP signing, of the likes of David Beckham and Thierry Henry. The head-turning name, the superstar persona, the trophy-laden resume, the expectations of transformative effect – or at least something approaching it – add up to a tall order for an injury-prone 32-year-old.
Sustained failure on the field, a recent history of tempestuous relations with their hardcore supporters, and paucity of purchase in Chicagoland’s crowded sports landscape has blended into a toxic cocktail of frustration and anger. Schweinsteiger can’t fix all this.
The pressure very much pushes in both directions here, too. It speaks volumes about the dogged miasma of struggle hanging over the Fire that an acquisition like this was so strenuously pursued, and brought to fruition even after a(nother) major offseason roster makeover and relatively promising start to the season.
Calling Schweinsteiger “the perfect embodiment of the club we are and the club we continue to aspire to be,” Rodriguez extolled his newcomer at length in a conference call with media. “Bastian is a gentleman, a sportsman—but no one doubts his abilities, his character, and no one can take away the championship nature of his performances.
“Bastian is going to make me a better pro, a better general manager, and he’s going to make us all better. And in the end, I think we’ll look at this and say, ‘This was a pivotal moment where our ambition and our vision caught up with our hopeful execution to make us a global club.’”
In other words, the Fire are paying a reported $4.5 million for one year’s service from not only a World Cup-winning center mid, but a locker-room general, team-culture-transformer and charismatic face of the club.
Compare Rodriguez’s words to those of another MLS executive a decade ago:
“The hope is that this will be a big stepping stone towards the point where we see ourselves in 20 years. We want to emerge as America's first super-club, to compete with Madrid and Man United. Some might say that's a pipe dream, but I prefer to call it our vision.”
That was Alexi Lalas, American soccer’s greatest salesman and the president and GM of the LA Galaxy at the time of Beckham’s arrival. Lalas recently called the Designated Player rule “a steroid injection needed at the time to propel the team, the league and the sport to another level,” and that isn’t just isolated rhetoric.
Tim Leiweke, then president of Galaxy owners AEG, vowed that “David Beckham will have a greater impact on soccer in America than any athlete has ever had on a sport globally.”
The accuracy of that bold prediction is open for debate. Certainly, though, both Beckham and the DP rule helped transition the league from survival mode to bullish growth and consolidation.
Fast forward to the Fire, however, and it’s sobering to consider that Chicago still seeks sweeping solutions to problems that many of their MLS peers left behind long ago.
Chicago has reached the playoffs just once this decade, and after racking them up at a fairly steady clip in their early years, has yet to win a major trophy since Andrew Hauptman took ownership of the club in 2007. After 10 years under the steady leadership of Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan, Chicago have churned through seven head coaches in the past decade. In marketing and revenue terms, the Fire labor under the handicap of Toyota Park’s remote location relative to their city’s downtown core.
Dodgy big signings have played no small part in the struggles. Juan Anangono, Nery Castillo, Alvaro Fernandez, Gilberto, Kennedy Igboananike, Sherjill MacDonald, Shaun Maloney, Federico Puppo, Arevalo Rios, Freddie Ljungberg – Chicago’s list of Designated Players is long on underachievement, with the prominent exception of Mexican icon Cuauhtémoc Blanco.
Sustained failure on the field, a recent history of tempestuous relations with their hardcore supporters, and paucity of purchase in Chicagoland’s crowded sports landscape has blended into a toxic cocktail of frustration and anger. Season after season of rebuilding and re-struggling has left swathes of empty seats at Fire home games, with the club having lost its place at the nexus of the enormous soccer scene in a metro area with nearly 10 million residents.
As much as it has colored the circumstances of his arrival, Schweinsteiger can’t fix all this. Even if he is an unqualified success both on and off the field, it will probably take years of achievement for his new club to dig out of the hole it finds itself in.
But Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic clearly feel that the German’s shoulders are broad enough to carry this load. Schweinsteiger’s knees, hamstrings and groin muscles will be more closely watched, however, given the grisly succession of health issues that hijacked his late career even before his move to Manchester United.
“Basti, when he has no little problems with his little injuries like he had in the last two years … he's a top, top player,” said Pep Guardiola, then at Bayern Munich, when Schweinsteiger left that club in 2015. “Unfortunately the last two years he had problems with his injuries and never was in good physical condition. But when he is in good condition, he is a big star.”
The imperious box-to-box dynamo that undergirded Germany’s triumph at Brazil 2014 seems a long way removed from the present. Can Schweinsteiger re-invent himself as a clever creator in Chicago’s No. 10 role? It would be a laudable achievement – and one that his new club would very much like to replicate in their own position at the fringes of a great American sports city.