CHICAGO — Even if he leads his team to the MLS Cup championship, and even if he scores the game-winning goal in the final, and even if he puts that ball into the net with a bicycle kick worthy of Pele, it’s possible Bastian Schweinsteiger never will produce a greater moment than when his introductory press conference with the Chicago Fire led to an American journalist asking if he would help bring the city a World Cup.
That’s tough to top.
This will suffice for the moment: It is a beautiful Monday, and Schweinsteiger is on the field at the University of Illinois-Chicago for his first training session as captain of the Major League Soccer All-Star team that will take on 2017 Champions League winner Real Madrid at Soldier Field (8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday; FS1, TSN, TVA). And his delight is obvious.
“It’s great. It’s a big honor to be voted for the game, and also to be voted for the captain,” Schweinsteiger said. “It’s nice to meet all the players. Of course you need a little time to adjust, to get familiar with each other. We want to make it comfortable for everyone who’s here, to have a good feeling.”
Although Real Madrid still is working through the preseason, and though it will be without superstar Cristiano Ronaldo because he is in Spain dealing with tax evasion charges, the MLS All-Stars will be asked to challenge the world’s best team with only two days of practice. In fact, they’ll have just a single day with the full squad. Such key players as U.S. internationals Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco of Italy were given an extra day to report because their Toronto FC club had a league game Sunday.
That makes Schweinsteiger’s duties as captain all the more necessary. He not only is familiar with the coaching staff — the Fire’s Veljko Paunovic is in charge of the MLS squad — he also has played against Real Madrid before. Schweinsteiger has been a starter on teams that won the Champions League (Bayern Munich, 2013) and World Cup (Germany, 2014).
“Real Madrid, obviously the last two years they won the Champions League, they are a very, very good team," Schweinsteiger said. "They improved, in my eyes, the last two to three years, their game style. It’s going to be a challenge for us to play against them. I always enjoyed to play against them. Those are big matches.”
Schweinsteiger moved to the Fire in advance of the 2017 season after less than two full years at Manchester United. The second of those was, frankly, an offense to a player who’d accomplished what Schweinsteiger had, with the class he’d shown through his career. Jose Mourinho, after being hired as Man U’s manager in May 2016, informed Schweinsteiger he was free to look for a new club and reportedly banned him from the team’s dressing room and ordered him to train with the youth team. Schweinsteiger did not play a single Premier League game for Man U and was allowed to leave for the Fire in the spring.
Scoring in his first MLS game on a header against the Montreal Impact was not the only evidence the move was ideally timed. A Chicago team that finished last in the league last season, with 31 points from 34 games, already has exceeded last year’s point total with 13 games still to play. The Fire stand second in the league with 38 points. Schweinsteiger has started all but one game since arriving in Chicago.
“He was huge for us, very important. He brought a mentality we were looking for,” Paunovic said. “He brought the soccer, on the field, but also he brought the character and identity for our club off the field. He did a great job so far. He’s a natural giver, very charismatic. He brought a lot of attention to our club. We were brought on the world map of soccer with him here.
“That’s something actually that really helps, to be challenged to work toward the goals we have as an organization, as a club. With him, it’s easier to work. We still have to look forward to get more from him, and give him everything he needs in order to continue our relationship as it is so far, a successful and enjoyable experience.”
There have been adjustments for Schweinsteiger. Having gone from two of the most powerful clubs in the world, Bayern Munich and Man U, to an improving team in a growing league such as MLS, there have been frustrations when teammates haven’t always read the game the same way as he did, didn’t always perform at the same level.
Bastian got 'em real bad. pic.twitter.com/vyZHL9Jv2X— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 20, 2017
Schweinsteiger acknowledged that the level of play is not the same as in the Premier League or Bundesliga and said it was frustrating when “things discussed are not implemented, or when somebody loses a ball or just does not have an eye for the teammate.” Naturally this was extrapolated, particularly in the English press, into him being “already fed up with MLS quality.” But Schweinsteiger said he expected this upon transferring and believes there is considerable potential in MLS.
He is earning $5.4 million with the Fire this year. He is not that frustrated.
“It took some time to understand everything, but the team helped me a lot, the club helped me a lot,” Schweinsteiger said. “We improved our game style, in my eyes. The last three games have not been good results for us; we have to try to get to the next level in our philosophy. But so far I enjoy it to be here. It’s really a nice country, with nice people. The MLS is very interesting. I enjoy the weather; the city is great.”
He allowed that the one thing that really took some getting used to, that still is a challenge, is how the pregame is handled.
“After warmup, here it takes 20 minutes until we touch the ball. In Europe, it’s 10 minutes,” Schweinsteiger said. “I know you have the national anthem and some celebrations before; I enjoy that, it’s cool, but it’s a little bit different.”