Bastian Schweinsteiger digs deep for Fire in return to trademarked role

Derik Hamilton
The German star delivered a commanding performance in defensive midfield as the Chicago Fire earned a 1-0 win at D.C. United

WASHINGTON — Bastian Schweinsteiger has made his name as a world-class metronome. So when the German star signed with the Chicago Fire — a team that already had acquired two standout defensive midfielders — his role in Veljko Paunovic's system developed into a dilemma.

We got the resolution to that quandary soon enough. Deployed in an advanced midfield role, in front of Dax McCarty and Juninho, the World Cup winner thrived. Whether he was threading the final pass or picking his moments to drop deep, Schweinsteiger left his mark. Class, it turns out, knows no position.

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But just when Schweinsteiger seemed settled in his new role, Juninho suffered an ankle injury. Enter playmaker Michael de Leeuw, with Schweinsteiger deployed alongside McCarty in defensive midfield.

"We are very happy that we have players that can play different roles, that can adapt to the way we want to play against different opponents," Paunovic said. "The role that he is playing is actually the role that he loves to play."

With Schweinsteiger back at his natural position, the Fire followed a 4-1 thrashing of the MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders last week with a 3-0 victory against the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday. Traveling to face D.C. United, Chicago improved to 6-3-3 with a 1-0 win Saturday on David Accam's 52nd-minute strike.

Bastian Schweinsteiger Jared Jeffrey Chicago Fire D.C. United

Bastian Schweinsteiger Patrick Mullins Chicago Fire D.C. United

Coming off back-to-back defeats and playing without suspended playmaker Luciano Acosta, Ben Olsen's D.C. side took a characteristically gritty approach to the encounter. But Schweinsteiger was up to the task, winning a slew of midfield battles while showing a willingness to mix it up with his physical opposition.

"You play against a team that plays a lot of long balls, very aggressive," Schweinsteiger said. "We wanted to play soccer, and that's what we have to do first of all. But we also have to fight against these kinds of teams and to show that we are there and that we can fight and defend our goal, and that's what we did."

While Schweinsteiger put his underrated defensive qualities on display, he also embraced the opportunity to pull the strings in possession.

On a day the Fire controlled the ball for 58 percent of the match, it was Schweinsteiger regularly dropping between the central defenders to build out of the back. The 32-year-old also drifted out wide at times, spraying an opportune switch here and there.

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And Schweinsteiger should have picked up an assist on a late foray forward, swiveling past three United players along the end line before seeing his setup spurned by the typically reliable Nemanja Nikolic.

"Bastian is a difference-maker in terms of dictating the pace of the game, dictating the tempo of the game, setting the rhythm for the team along with myself," McCarty said. "That's our job, and that's what we try to do in possession — make the other team run, get them tired. And once gaps open up, Bastian is a guy who can find any pass on the field.

"I always know that if I'm in trouble, he'll be one showing up between the lines or around defenders because he wants the ball in hard spots. His understanding of space, time, when to play fast, when to slow the game down, it's at a different level than a lot of players I've played with."

In league that sees acquisitions from abroad often struggle to cope with the physical style and grueling travel schedule, such challenges have hardly slowed down Schweinsteiger. At times, it's easy to forget just two months have passed since he signed from Manchester United.

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Wherever he's dropped in the Fire midfield, one thing is clear: Schweinsteiger looks right at home.

"From my first match until now, we've improved a lot," Schweinsteiger said. "We have chances in our game, we have control in our game, we have a good defense work in our game, we have the mentality, we want to win. We have to keep it up, but still there are things we can learn, we can do better, to make it easier on the pitch for everyone."