Set to trigger MLS fire

Set to trigger MLS fire

Football: Having tasted great success at all levels, Bastian Schweinsteiger has taken up a different challenge

Set to trigger MLS fire
Last Tuesday afternoon, Bastian Schweinsteiger and his wife, the retired tennis star Ana Ivanovic, boarded a Lufthansa flight in Munich, bound for Chicago. On Wednesday, Schweinsteiger was presented as a Chicago Fire player, ready to fire in Major League Soccer. It is a breathless, whirlwind week — the hectic schedule of a man making up for lost time.

It is eight months now, since Schweinsteiger returned from an extended vacation after last summer’s European Championship to be told he was free to leave Manchester United. His first season in England had been blighted by injury. A few weeks later, José Mourinho, then newly installed as the club’s coach, informed Schweinsteiger that his services would not be required for a second season.

When no suitable destination for Schweinsteiger, a 32-year-old midfielder, could be found, he was cast into an extended purgatory. He was banished from the first-team dressing room at the club’s training base south of Manchester, a sign that there would be no way back, and was left to train either alone with one of the club’s fitness coaches or in sessions with United’s youth and reserve players.

Many of his peers would find such an ordeal agonising. And Schweinsteiger — one of the most decorated players of his generation, a winner of the World Cup and the Champions League, a serial Bundesliga champion — would be forgiven for seeing it as an unwarranted indignity, for allowing bitterness to fester and resentment to set in.

Yet even now that it is over, Schweinsteiger betrays not a hint of that. It is not just that he issues the usual platitudes about wanting to “look forward, not back,” focusing on the Fire rather than the ashes of his time at United — it is that his trials have not diminished his determination, but redoubled it. “I’m not really a negative thinker,” he said in an interview. “It was a character test, that’s all.”

He does not say it — he does not need to — but it is clear it is a test he feels he has passed.

When it was announced this month that Schweinsteiger had signed a one-year deal worth a reported $4.5 million to join the Fire, it was greeted by some as an unwelcome echo of the days when the MLS was treated as a sinecure for those fading stars no longer able to shine in Europe.

That is not how Schweinsteiger sees it. Nelson Rodriguez, the Fire’s general manager, had highlighted the benefits signing a player of Schweinsteiger’s caliber might bring off the field — “Bastian comes with an entirely different standard of excellence, and this is a call to our team that we need to meet that expectation,” Rodriguez said — but Schweinsteiger does not view that as his primary responsibility. “I am a football player,” he said. “I like to win. And I am used to winning, quite a lot.”

His enforced hiatus has not dimmed that appetite. What kept him going through eight months of solitary fitness work and sessions with United’s hopefuls, he said, was his dream of playing “one more time at Old Trafford,” of having the chance to say goodbye to fans who fervently had his back, rather than those who were on it — unusual, in the hair-trigger Premier League. He said he had only ever wanted to play for two clubs — Bayern Munich and United — and he did not want either tenure to end in resentment and regret.

In November, his patience was rewarded. “The manager came to speak to me,” Schweinsteiger said of Mourinho. “He told me something — it is not my job to say what that was — and then I was training with the first team.”

Schweinsteiger was given a rapturous reception when he appeared as a late substitute against West Ham United. This year, he was featured in two FA Cup games — scoring in one — and a Europa League tie with France’s St-Étienne.
“My dream came true,” he said.

Even long before Mourinho offered him that glimmer of hope, though, neither self-pity nor self-doubt had intruded on Schweinsteiger’s mind. “Never,” he said. “I never doubted my quality. Let me show my quality, and I will get results.”

More remarkably, as the weeks passed by and the call did not come, he did not lose his desire.  Financially, he does not need to play, nor has he any ambitions left unfulfilled. And yet, as he said, “Even when I was training alone, just me and one of United’s fitness coaches, I loved going onto the field, doing sprints, being at the training ground.”

That, rather than the gilded cruise into retirement that Schweinsteiger has been accused of seeking, is what he says has brought him to Chicago. He dodges, artfully, the question of whether he had any alternatives to the Fire — “I do not like it when players say they had this offer from China, this one from a top club in Europe” — but maintains that it is immaterial: He chose the Fire for a reason.

Partly, it was the lure of MLS.

“I remember when Bayern came for the All-Star Game in 2014,” he said of his Bundesliga team playing at the MLS event in Portland, Oregon. “My brother was with the first team then, too, and we sat on the bench and said how great the atmosphere was. It really felt like an event.”

Veljko Paunovic, the Fire’s Serbian head coach, was an attraction, too. Paunovic flew to Manchester, England, last year to meet Schweinsteiger at a restaurant near his former home, and they spent several hours together. “We had a really good talk,” Schweinsteiger said. “He reminds me of Pep Guardiola in how he wants his team to play and his ideas for the game,” he added, referring to the Manchester City manager. “I was really impressed.”
And then there is Chicago itself.

“There are the Bulls, the Cubs, the Blackhawks,” Schweinsteiger said.

He wants to “contribute my service” to helping the Fire stand tall in that daunting sporting landscape. It is a considerable task, and not the sort of job for a player interested only in stepping gently into the twilight.

That, though, is not how Schweinsteiger sees himself. He does not, he insists, have anything to prove to anyone, even after all that has happened. But he does have the energy, and the hunger, and the drive, to “prove something to myself.”
He has no time to waste.