Bastian Schweinsteiger has signed with the Chicago Fire. His $4.5 million Designated Player contract is reminiscent of the MLS days of yore when David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and several other aging European stars decided to come to the USA to ease themselves into retirement. Many people thought those days were gone as MLS clubs began using their DP slots on younger, more on field focussed players. This offseason seemed to signal that this was the new normal.
Bastian Schweinsteiger Signing is Not a Bad Move for Chicago Fire
Then along come the Chicago Fire. They signed a 32-year-old central midfielder who doesn’t have the legs to keep going across the pond anymore. He has won everything there is to win over there. He is a household name among Americans who follow the game overseas. He is, in every way imaginable, the poster child of the original thinking for designated players.
Initial Negative Reaction
Initial reaction from several prominent MLS pundits was negative. Here’s an example from the Soccer Eagle himself, Jason Davis:
Leave it to the Fire to be the last bastion of old DP thinking. What?
— Jason Davis ⚽🦅 (@davisjsn) March 21, 2017
NBC Sports’ Andy Edwards got involved, as well. He criticised the move from an on field stand point. He wanted to know where Schweinsteiger would fit into a Chicago midfield that already features MLS veterans Dax McCarty and Juninho. This is a valid concern, but I trust Veljko Paunovic to find a way to make it work.
This implies, somewhat correctly, that Schweinsteiger is only around for his star power, or at least whatever is left of it. He’s a name that soccer fans will know and may want to see play live at Toyota Park, which is the epitome of MLS thinking of… only about three years ago.
Old Thinking for an Old Club, and That’s Just Fine
Schweinsteiger is old, hasn’t played all that much in the last 12 months, and may not even be good enough to play central midfield at the MLS level. He doesn’t even have a surefire position to play on his new team. The top clubs in MLS would look at this as a waste of resources, but for the Fire, this isn’t nearly as bad. The ones saying so are the ones assuming this move is only about his abilities to play soccer.
But this move isn’t only about Bastian Schweinsteiger playing soccer.
Chicago has not only suffered the ignominious fate of having finished last place in the Eastern Conference for the last two seasons, but they were also second to last in attendance in all of MLS last season. Despite exciting additions like Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic, they still only had 13,000 fans show up for their 2017 home opener against Real Salt Lake. Schweinsteiger’s name should attract some more fans out to Bridgeview to watch this growing team.
This reeks of MLS 2.0 thinking in an MLS 3.0 world. But the Fire are still an MLS 2.0 club. They aren’t on the same level as the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders of the world in terms of popularity. The club, and league as a whole, still hasn’t quite caught on in the crowded sports market of Chicago. They are competing with two successful baseball teams, an NFL team that has been around forever, a hockey team that has won three Stanley Cups recently, and a basketball team that has one of the richest histories in the sport. The Fire need a big name if they hope to get themselves into the mainstream in a very crowded city.
I wouldn’t worry about this move derailing the Fire’s efforts to build a winner. This winter alone saw the likes of Nikolic and McCarty join the squad in much more on-field focused moves. One older guy coming along with the main purpose of attracting attention isn’t going to take the focus away from what they already do well, if they even do anything well at all yet.
It’s only a one year deal with an option for a second. There is plenty of ability to cut ties him with Schweinsteiger if it doesn’t have the intended effects. The team is still probably a year or two away from playoff contention with or without him in the lineup. So, why not spend a chunk of change to try and attract a little more attention to a team that goes pretty unnoticed in its own hometown? It might be just what the Chicago Fire need right now.