When Bastian Schweinsteiger stepped onto the field on Wednesday night you know there were some Chicago Fire fans envisioning a dream scenario. One where the German star unfurled a Superman cape and willed the Fire to a comeback victory.
Anyone having that dream was quickly slapped in the face by reality, as the Red Bulls effectively killed off Wednesday's MLS playoff knockout round game with Daniel Royer's goal just five minutes after Schweinsteiger entered the match.
No comeback, no Superman cape. Schweinsteiger had managed just two touches of the ball before Royer's goal — the Red Bulls' third in a 4-0 rout — and aside from one beautiful pass that sprung a sequence resulting in a bad miss by Nemanja Nikolic, the final match of Schweinsteiger's season was largely forgettable.
So what do we make of his first season in MLS? In many ways, it was a success. He said all the right things, did the media tours, smiled for the cameras and showed off his impressive charisma, but he also brought a real command to the Fire locker room in a year when the team welcomed a host of new faces. On the field, his early games were especially exciting, with the former Bayern Munich star showing off his full assortment of qualities, from the incredible vision to the scoring touch. His early showings brought fans, media attention and victories. Things couldn't have started much better.
As great as the start was, the honeymoon didn't last that long. Schweinsteiger remained a marketing dream throughout, doing every public event possible and really embracing his teammates, but on the field his performances began to fade. The concerns before he arrived in MLS — the ones about just how much he had left in the tank — were suddenly validated as he began to provide less and less of an impact. He never quite reached the Andrea Pirlo-at-New York City FC level of poor performances, but it isn't a coincidence that the Fire's results went downhill in the second half of the season as his influence became less pronounced.
Then came the injury, a thigh problem that kept him out of the final eight matches of the season. His absence might have been seen by some as a reason for the Fire slipping a bit later in the year, but the reality was the team had lost six of seven matches before his injury, and finished out the regular season with a 4-2-2 record without him.
Still, the Fire were always going to need a healthy and motivated Schweinsteiger to have a real chance in the playoffs, especially after having lost midfielder Michael De Leeuw to a knee injury during the summer. Chicago sorely missed both Schweinsteiger and DeLeeuw on Wednesday night, as their midfield was thoroughly outplayed by the Red Bulls. By the time Schweinsteiger showed up in the 65th minute, the damage was done, and Royer's goal settled the outcome before the German star even had a chance to get going.
Wednesday's loss was a painful one, but doesn't erase what was, in many ways, an excellent season for a Fire team that had endured so many years of terrible results. The 2017 season saw a real turnaround, one that Schweinsteiger helped get rolling.
What will happen to Schweinsteiger next? It will be up to both him and the Fire if he signs a new deal beyond 2017, and there is no guarantee the sides are going to find common ground. The Fire should be happy with what he provided, but also have to be wary about overpaying him going forward. He's 33 years old, and while he still has bags of skill, he isn't as durable as he used to be. The Fire have to ask themselves if he is worth another multi-million dollar contract.
That's assuming Schweinsteiger wants to stick around. He said all the right things publicly about loving life in Chicago, but is he ready to stay and make a multi-year commitment beyond this season? Does he have enough left in the tank to be a difference-maker worth a mega-bucks contract, or could the Fire be setting themselves up with their own Pirlo situation, tying themselves to a player well past his prime being painfully overpaid to contribute very little?
You can't imagine either side wanting that, so maybe it would be best for them to part ways now, and for Schweinsteiger to consider his next step, be it retirement or a return to Europe. As for the Fire, they should consider their initial investment in Schweinsteiger a successful one, but only if it ends now. It's very tough to imagine things getting much better if their marriage is extended beyond 2017. It's more likely next year will play out much like Wednesday night did, with Fire fans praying for Schweinsteiger to conjure some magic, only to be left disappointed.