HOBOKEN, N.J. — Anyone who has watched Bastian Schweinsteiger's early matches in Major League Soccer has seen a player who has adapted quickly to his new home, as well as someone who clearly plays the game at an elite level. What observers may not even realize is that, in his mind, the German star isn't close to being at his best yet.
Schweinsteiger joined the Chicago Fire fresh off the most frustrating period of his career. He spent parts of the last two seasons mostly on the bench at Manchester United, the victim of Jose Mourinho's petulant decision to exclude the midfielder from his plans — a decision the manager has come to admittedly regret. More than a year without regular games has led to rust that will take time for Schweinsteiger to scrape off, something he must try to do while also getting to know his new team on the fly.
As a result, the Schweinsteiger you are watching a month into his MLS career is, by his estimation, just 70 percent of what he can be. That's a thrilling proposition for the Fire, and should be a scary one for the rest of the league.
So when will we see the best Schweinsteiger?
"Probably it will be the case when I have more matches in my body, when I have more rhythm," Schweinsteiger told Goal. "You have to know that I was not playing so much at (Manchester) United. To come in the league without a preseason is not so easy, so actually I’m quite surprised how good I feel.
"But my expectations for myself are quite high so sometimes in my game I want to try to decide it," Schweinsteiger added. "I want to make the difference, then something in the body is not working 100 percent. Like a little bit of the fitness, or you’re not in the rhythm where you’re used to being. My brain is working, so that’s always good, but the other things will definitely come. I will get to this point in let’s say in five, six more matches."
Though he isn't at 100 percent, Schweinsteiger has already gone a long way toward silencing critics who questioned his move to MLS. The belief was that he was a bad investment — costing $4 million for the 2017 season — as a 32-year-old who hasn't played much in the past two years.
Schweinsteiger's contract with the Fire is a one-year deal with options for more seasons beyond 2017 if both sides are happy with the arrangement. So far, the match is looking like a perfect one. Based on what Schweinsteiger has already shown in five games, the Fire have to be feeling pretty good about the deal. Their players certainly do.
"Any time you step on the field with a guy whose got the experience that Bastian's got, he makes the game easier for you and your team," Fire midfielder Dax McCarty told Goal. "For me, he's surpassed my expectations. Obviously, I always expected a high level from him, but you're never quite sure what you're going to get until the guy steps in the locker room and steps on the field.
"He's gone above and beyond what's been expected of him, in terms of his presence in the locker room," McCarty continued. "His willingness to be a good teammate, meet guys on outings off the field, really buy into everything the Chicago Fire want to try and accomplish.
"It's not just on the field, how good he's been off the field as well, he's been a great leader."
Schweinsteiger wasted little time making an impact, scoring in his first match with the Fire before helping the team post a pair of home victories. But things have gotten tougher since the Fire went on a three-match road trip.
Schweinsteiger's most recent match — Saturday's 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls — was one of his toughest so far in MLS. The Red Bulls were clearly intent on being physical with the former Germany international, fouling him four times and even opening up a cut on his forehead in the first half. Perhaps more frustrating for him was his team's inability to capitalize on the space the Red Bulls were leaving on the field, space Schweinsteiger could be seen floating into regularly, only to repeatedly be left waving his arms trying to draw a pass that didn't come.
Familiarity between Schweinsteiger and his teammates will come with time, but he has already become accustomed with how competitive MLS can be, and also how physical it is — which is fine with him.
"For me, that’s not a big deal. I’m actually physically strong. I can adjust," Schweinsteiger said. "There are other things as well where you can improve a little bit in MLS, but I have to say the league is good. It’s not like that the league is boring or bad. I think the league is good, and every single match is a tough match, so that’s good for us. We can win. We have to focus on our game style to make it easier for everyone on the pitch as well, and then I’m quite confident for our games."
Schweinsteiger was no stranger to American soccer before making the jump from Manchester United. He remembers watching the 1994 World Cup as a child, and at an early age he became familiar with German legend Franz Beckenbauer's time playing for the New York Cosmos, which took place before Schweinsteiger was born. He also remembered the exploits of another German star — Lothar Matthaeus— who spent a season in MLS playing in New York.
That familiarity is what he says made a move to the U.S. something he had long considered, and a move that made sense when his time at Manchester United turned into a nightmare. Also making MLS a more attractive option is the increased exposure in Germany to MLS, which more Germans are watching now than ever before.
"I think so, yes," Schweinsteiger said when asked if he thinks Germans are following MLS more. "MLS is also shown on Eurosport in Germany. A lot of players are also messaging me asking, ‘How is it?’ I have a feeling if MLS improves, that more players from Germany will come over."
He added: "I have some friends, and also teammates, asking how it is and everything. They want to know how it is. And I know in Germany, the players in the teams which I played for, like America, of course, but they are not sure about the level of MLS.
"I hope the level of the league improves step by step, and then I have a good feeling that a lot of German soccer players will come over."
Though he has a World Cup and UEFA Champions League winners' medals to go along with multiple Bundesliga trophies, Schweinsteiger is keeping expectations modest with the Fire, a team that hasn't won an MLS Cup since 1998 and hasn't reached the postseason since 2012.
"For me, it would be great if we could qualify for the playoffs," Schweinsteiger said. "The Eastern Conference in my eyes is quite tight, everything, the teams are good so it’s not so easy. Before we ask for this kind of spot, we have to do our work and we have to improve — as I said before — our game style, our mentality a little bit more. Then we can win matches, but we have to do the work before we ask for the top spot."
Ending that playoff drought is looking much more realistic these days, and having Schweinsteiger — especially at 100 percent — will certainly make it a strong possibility.