So, you’ve probably heard that the Chicago Fire have offered former German national team captain Bastian Schweinsteiger 16.5 million reasons to be thankful this year. At 5.5 million per year, the deal would put the Bayern and die Mannschaft legend among MLS’ elite earners - and, we whisper in our inside voices, fulfill the long-unfulfilled (and basically off-the-cuff) promise for a player making the kind of money Robbie Keane made to bolster the side.
The deal comes with Schweinsteiger’s career at the crossroads. His youthful exuberance a thing of the past, Pep Guardiola found him surplus to requirements in his inexorable laboratory experiment at building the world’s most dominant club side at Bayern. A legendary midfield leader, a guy who attacked as a tyro and later played deep midfield for the World Cup champions, went up for sale at a cut rate on the open market, and that wee red club in Manchester couldn’t wait to spend its money.
But he wasn’t the same. Or he was too outspoken. Too slow. Too something. He barely saw the field under Louis van Gaal, and then was exiled to the reserves to await deportment under Jose Mourinho. And here we are, Velko and Schweini sharing a bottle of red and talking numbers - and oh, what numbers.
Let’s be clear: $16.5MM/3 years is an order of magnitude more than the Fire have been accustomed to spending on those precious Designated Player slots. More recently, they’ve been fishing expeditions for outgoing transfer fees - Anangono, Puppo, and on and on, DPs in name only to defray the transfer fee, all brought in in the vain hope they’d 1) contribute to the Fire winning football matches and 2) then be sold for a handsome profit to some (comparatively) fat-pocketed European club. There’s no monetary upside for the Schweinsteiger deal - no combination of jersey sales and ticket sales and general Germania that offsets the cost of this contract. If these numbers are accurate, this is pure sunk cost in pursuit of competitiveness.
As to what Schweinsteiger could bring - well, gosh. The Chicago Fire roster, as currently constructed, is a group of solid mid-career pros (de Leeuw, Kappelhof, Alvarez) and some young guys with considerable upside (Accam*, Polster, Campbell, Vincent) who could really use a wise head in the center of things who won’t find any pace too frantic. Gee, know any of those available in the open market? Viewed through this prism, signing Schweinsteiger answers so many questions.
It’s a simple matter to imagine how the midfield lines up with him - a five-man spread in two layers: Schweini scheming and spraying the ball around from deep, Polster running alongside him as the terrier; then Accam slanting in from the left, Alvarez withdrawn and picking his spots on the right, and de Leeuw shape-shifting in the middle, becoming whatever’s needed. If the upside is realized, suddenly 2017 is a much more interesting season around Bridgeview.
Hot (Time) take
If the numbers are correct, this deal has the potential to change the post-Cuahtemoc Blanco narrative for the Chicago Fire - a team run by a management group trying to get by on the cheap, shedding payroll and budget costs year-after-year despite ever-worsening results. If Schweinsteiger shows up fit, logs 32 games in the midfield for the Fire, and stabilizes the spine of the team, it’s money well-spent.
It’s just that there are so many ways for it to go wrong. Off the top of my head, the main worry is the physical thing: Schweinsteiger visibly slowed over the course of his long career for die Roten and Germany. His skill, durability and experience kept him in both sides, but his position kept slipping backwards, from the creative places near the goal, to the engine room, and at last to the schemer’s laboratory where there was a partner who loved to do the running. Follow that up with a lost 18 months training dully in Manchester - what are we getting? A freshened-up wise man, or the last paycheck of the guy whose knees don’t bend anymore (or something)?
MLS is not forgiving of distinguished European gentlemen who’ve lost a half-step too many, as Steven Gerrard - drafted into a similar role for the Galaxy - can attest. The travel is brutal; for Europeans, MLS feels like a league schedule that includes international travel half the season. Which leads to injuries; how can we imagine this Fire as a team that 1.) successfully builds a coherent, winning structure around Schweinsteiger, and then 2.) survives a long-term injury to him without cratering? I’m glad I’m not advising about the reinsurance on this deal.
I’m also glad to see the Fire displaying some ambition - so very glad - and I hope this is the beginning of a really fantastic offseason for Nelson Rodriguez, Velko Paunovic et al. In concert with investments in the training facilities and the academy system, it could signal a renaissance for this long-beleaguered club. But this spending, absent some investment in the sporting infrastructure of the club, is hard to understand as a long-term positive.
*Yes, I know Accam is a DP, but he still has insane upside. Anyone who’s potential is still ‘top-flight winger in Europe’ has crazy upside, no matter how much they’ve already produced and how much they’re already paid. If David’s game can take just a little jump, the Fire will hit the money-gusher in late summer and we’ll bid him farewell.