Bastian Schweinsteiger’s final years in football were spent playing centre-back for Chicago Fire in the MLS. The team wasn’t great, but he was.
A lot can change in the space of three years. Back in the summer of 2014, Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ was playing on the radio, Nigel Farage’s UKIP were on the rise, and Luis Suarez had just bitten a chunk out of Giorgio Chiellini.
And things were going really rather well for German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Aged 29, the Bayern Munich star was at the summit of his career, winning the World Cup with Germany in fine style by defeating Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final and humiliating hosts Brazil along the way.
Just a few months later he would be made captain of Die Mannschaft, indicating a bright future at club and international level.
However, on 18 June 2017, less than three years after lifting football’s most prestigious trophy, Schweinsteiger was playing as a sweeper for Chicago Fire and doing his best to thwart a striker named Teal Bunbury.
How did it happen?
World Cup to Wooden Spoon
There’s a short explanation of Schweinsteiger’s three-year journey from the Maracana to the Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts.
His legs went.
They’d probably been going for a while, but if you want to pinpoint the moment the whole world realised this, it was probably on 4 October 2015.
A 31-year-old Schweinsteiger, who had just joined Manchester United, was playing as part of a midfield pivot with 34-year-old Michael Carrick in a Premier League game against Arsenal. Within 20 minutes, Arsenal were 3-0 up, and United realised they’d been flogged a dead horse (or pig, as it were).
Louis van Gaal was sacked at the end of the season, Jose Mourinho came in, and Schweinsteiger was left to walk his dog in the Cheshire countryside for half a year.
That is until Chicago Fire FC came calling in March 2017.
This was a real crossroads for Schweinsteiger. During his United wilderness, he’d been linked to fellow Premier League side Everton as well as a number of MLS and Chinese Super League clubs. Some had even suggested a potential return to Bayern.
Here, however, was a concrete offer: $100,000 a week to play for a franchise that had just become the first team to finish dead last in MLS in consecutive years, winning (and retaining) an actual wooden spoon.
If playing alongside a creaking Michael Carrick was a challenge, this would be something else.
Scoring and sweeping
In Chicago, the arrival of World Cup winner Schweinsteiger was met with a degree of caution: could an injury-prone 32-year-old do much to help the club out of its slump? Or would it prove to be a huge waste of money?
After just 17 minutes of his Fire debut, Schweinsteiger scored his first goal for the club, coolly nodding in a close-range header.
Bastian Schweinsteiger's highlights on his Chicago Fire debut pic.twitter.com/xiQpXfXsuB
— 101 Great Goals (@101greatgoals) April 3, 2017
And with the German veteran on board, Chicago Fire — a laughing stock in MLS for the last two years — began to raise their game.
Schweinsteiger scored again two weeks later, this time rolling back the years with some neat control and a powerful finish from the right wing.
For a few months, the Fire were flying. With Schweinsteiger in midfield (and regularly completing the full 90 minutes), they reached the top of the Eastern Conference.
Eventually, they lost some form and surrendered their lead, finishing third and losing in the first round of the playoffs. But the improvement had been significant: the Fire came close to winning a trophy that year, and it wasn’t the wooden spoon.
But something else happened during Schweinsteiger’s successful first few months with his new club.
During an away match against New England Revolution, Fire boss Veljko Paunovic deployed Schweinsteiger as a sweeper operating between two traditional centre-backs in the tradition of Franz Beckenbauer or Lothar Matthaus.
“We thought that could be a good solution,” Paunovic said. “Obviously he has qualities to play there.”
And Schweinsteiger himself, the newly converted defender, was happy with his role and the 2-1 victory it helped to achieve.
“Sometimes you have to play different,” he said.
Schweinsteiger is known as a very good winger who became an even better central midfielder.
But he did actually have some prior experience playing in defence. More than a decade earlier, in the autumn of 2005, the German played as a left-back for both Bayern and the German national team.
That little experiment was eventful, to say the least.
In a top-of-the-table clash between Bayern and Werder Bremen, Schweinsteiger’s vulnerability was exposed inside 60 seconds when Miroslav Klose easily outjumped him to score. But a furious Schweinsteiger thwacked in a long-range equaliser just two minutes later.
The following week, Bayern’s out-of-position youngster was back on the right wing, and he never again played in defence for the Bavarian club.
Hey now, you’re an MLS All-Star
The Chicago Fire experiment was very different to what happened in 2005.
Older, wiser and much, much slower, Schweinsteiger appeared fairly well suited to the odd game in central defence, as he could control the tempo of the match without having to chase the ball.
During the 2018 MLS season, however, the ‘odd game’ became the norm. Schweinsteiger was moved into defence after the Fire picked up just one point from their first three games, and the switch had an immediate positive impact.
MLS analyst Bobby Warshaw said this of the German’s performance in the 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew:
“While Schweinsteiger was supposed to be playing center back, he occasionally would pop up in the midfield and hang for a minute. Whether this was designed, with Paunovic telling his player something along the lines of ‘Read the game, sniff out danger, and go after it,’ or if Schweinsteiger just wandered out of position, only two people know.”
Unfortunately, Schweinsteiger’s conversion couldn’t prevent the Fire from suffering a hugely disappointing season, finishing second from bottom in the Eastern Conference.
2019, another poor year for the Fire, would prove to be Schweinsteiger’s last in MLS and in football altogether, and he spent the majority of it in defence — often as a traditional centre-back in a back four rather than a sweeper in a back five.
And although fans were ultimately disappointed that Schweinsteiger was required to play in defence — given a dearth of better options — most were happy with his contributions there.
What Schweinsteiger probably hadn’t counted on was being called up to the MLS All-Star squad to play centre-back against Joao Felix and Diego Costa in a friendly versus Atletico Madrid (in Florida, in July), which went exactly as you’d expect.
He deserved the recognition though, and in his final 10 MLS appearances, he helped the Fire keep five clean sheets.
Few would have predicted that Schweinsteiger would end his career as an MLS All-Star ‘defender’, but given the player’s talent and level of professionalism, his success in that unfamiliar position should surprise nobody.
By Benedict O’Neill