After a period of big name players leaving the Major League Soccer, like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, the MLS are attracting the big names from Europe yet again.
World Cup and Champions League winner Bastian Schweinsteiger’s move to Chicago Fire was confirmed on Wednesday, with the grandiose official unveiling taking place, as well as a mass swarming of fans at O’Hare Airport upon his arrival from Manchester United the day before. This move is one that is perfect for all three parties involved: Schweinsteiger himself, Chicago Fire as a club, and the MLS as a League.
Firstly, for Bastian himself. Not playing at Manchester United, wanting to move on and continue to play regularly at his age is an obvious aim. In the modern age, the first expectation is a move to China. However, most players, particularly those from Europe, are sceptical of a move to a place where culture and language are so different. This is why Chicago is the perfect city for someone like Schweinsteiger. Chicago is not only an attractive city on a par with New York and Los Angeles, where players like Lampard, Pirlo, David Villa, Beckham, Gerrard, Robbie Keane and Ashley Cole have all moved to and enjoyed. However, unlike the other two mentioned cities, Chicago has a large historical German influence: according to the 2000 US Census, 15.8% of Chicagoans have German ancestry, as well as being the largest European ethnic group, larger than the well-noted Italian and Irish communities, responsible for famed Chicagoan traditions such as Deep Dish Pizza and dying the Chicago River green on St Patrick’s Day. Therefore, for a German who is fluent in English and looking to move to the United States, Chicago is very much the perfect city.
“Most players, particularly those from Europe, are sceptical of a move to a place where culture and language are so different.”
In addition to his personal life, the move is a good one in his professional life. Chicago Fire as a club are one of the largest clubs in the MLS, but have been underperforming for almost a decade. However, despite being a young club as all those in the MLS are, but even in comparison to the other sides in the League, the number of big name players at the Fire has been much fewer than other comparable clubs. Most of the club legends are not big names, and those who are big names that have played for the Fire, have often not stayed long enough to become legends. For example, Carlos Bocanegra (of Fulham and Rangers fame) and DaMarcus Beasley (Man City then also Rangers) were players who started their career at the Fire after being drafted to them through the messy system unique to American sport. Brian McBride, a Chicagoan, finished his career with the Fire, having already moved to Europe by the inception of the MLS (before returning and being picked up by the Columbus Crew). This isn’t to say that big names from abroad haven’t made an impact: Mexican national team legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco played almost 100 games for the Fire, and one-time Ballon D’Or winner Hristro Stoichkov almost led them in 2000 to a repeat of their Double success (winning the US Open Cup but losing in the MLS Cup final) of their inaugural season two years prior. However, others signed with as much fanfare as the two aforementioned names came with much less success. Fredrik Ljungberg moved to the Fire from the Seattle Sounders, but only stayed for half a season before moving to Celtic. And, the last player to move to the Fire from the Premier League was Shaun Maloney, who returned to England after only a year. The only big name German to have played for the Fire is Arne Friedrich, capped 82 times by Germany, including being an integral member of their 2006 World Cup campaign. Despite having a spell hampered by injuries, which eventually forced him to retire, he became a cult hero amongst fans, and he was reportedly consulted by Schweinsteiger himself before making the move.
As well as solely the Fire, Chicago as a city is one which is obsessed with its sports teams and their stars. Michael Jordan is treated like a God in the city. Any member of the Chicago Cubs team which recently ended their 107 year long wait for a World Series will never have to buy a drink again. This is the kind of unadulterated adulation that Schweinsteiger will be subject to; as great, perhaps even greater than anything he received in his 13 years at Bayern Munich. The Fire are slowly but surely growing to be seen alongside the likes of the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs and White Sox as major sporting sides occupying the conscience of Chicagoans on an everyday basis, and were success to come under the influence of a World Cup and Champions League winner with the status Schweinsteiger possesses, this growth would exponentially increase.
On the club’s side, the Fire are acquiring one of the best and most influencial central midfielders in the game since the turn of the century. As well as his pedigree in the World Cup and Champions League, he won eight Bundesliga titles and seven DFL-Pokal winners medals too. In a side like the Fire who haven’t reached an MLS Playoff game since 2012, and filled with young, inexperienced players, a man with such pedigree, and a winning mentality, will be of immense use in the dressing room. As well as that, the pace of the MLS is slower than that of the Premier League, something he struggled with, and led to his casting out by Jose Mourinho. This means that his passing ability, particularly from deep, could be well exploited by the Fire, to pull strings and start attacks. This is a role which Andrea Pirlo, having done it for AC Milan, Juventus and Italy, has continued at New York City. Basti has done this at both Bayern and United, and can do it for the Fire. It will be of particular use for when he has to play in games in the deep South in the height of summer, where the heat and humidity will even further effect his legs which have already at least partially gone.
Finally, whilst this does little to dispel the view in Europe that the MLS is a retirement league for past-it has-beens looking for a last big pay cheque, it is still the view that this kind of signing is big for attracting both more fans to games, as well as other players to both club and league. As well as this, Schweinsteiger is only 32 at the age of signing, which compared to the likes of Lampard (36), Pirlo and Gerrard (both 35), potentially gives him a couple more seasons of playing before bowing out, unlike particularly Lampard and Gerrard who both left to retire after one and a half seasons.
“A hero to the city of Chicago before even kicking a ball”
Bastian Schweinsteiger to Chicago Fire is the perfect move for everyone involved. He and his family get to move to a great city, with elements of his home nation present to make him feel even more at home; he becomes a hero to the city of Chicago before even kicking a ball, the Fire gain a world star to aide them to mould a young team into a successful one, and the League gains yet another star to add to their list, to show they can compete with the likes of China. And, who knows, perhaps AFP journalist Derek Henkle’s poorly-educated prediction that went viral can come true; Bastian Schweinsteiger can lead Chicago Fire to the World Cup. At the very least, those in Section 8 will be hoping they can become a competitive force in US Soccer once again.