The narrative heading into this season was clear: MLS was no longer going to be content to be a retirement league.
After years, it seemed like the teams were catching on. The way to build a successful franchise was not to sign “big names” and hope that the crowds would show up. The way to build a successful franchise was to win.
If you haven’t checked in on this league in a while, you should know that MLS has changed. Teams are getting younger. Designated player spots are not being used on the superstars of years past and instead are going to promising international players entering their primes. Creative, attacking sides are springing up around the league. Goals are up. The quality of soccer is improving.
And on Monday night it was reported that Chicago Fire had acquired Manchester United's Bastian Schweinsteiger, the 32-year-old German midfielder who hasn’t played for Manchester United with any regularity in two years and has retired from the German national team. A player who plays the same position as the two best Fire players – Dax McCarty and Juninho – who are three and four years younger than he is, respectively.
The question is clear: What are the Fire doing?
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Before I delve too deeply into this, let me just say that I think Schweinsteiger will be fine for the team. He’s a good, at times great, player who can do a job. Still. This isn’t a catastrophe. This isn’t the Fire signing a 39-year-old has-been to try and grab a few headlines. He might be good for the team, even. He’ll score some goals. He’ll have some nice moments.
But at the cost, and for what the team needs, the signing just doesn’t make any sense. Schweinsteiger could be a good player for an MLS side. He will have a very hard time being one for this MLS side. Why? He plays the same position as McCarty and Juninho. Not kind of the same position. The exact same position. He’s either been a 6 or an 8 throughout his entire career, the same as those two (very, very good) MLS players, who are both younger than he is. The idea that Schweinsteiger will be able to transform himself into a 10 for the team is naïve. He’s never been that player. He’s a hardworking box-to-box midfielder who can put in a good tackle and hit a good long ball. He’s not Kaká. Heck, he’s not Sacha Kljestan.
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And yes, the downturn for Schweinsteiger is real. He has had just 13 assists in four years of club soccer. He scored one goal and had zero assists for Manchester United in 18 appearances for the club in Premier League play. He tacked on another goal in the FA Cup. These aren't eye-popping numbers.
Jamming him into a midfield with McCarty and Juninho will be fine. They’ll win a lot of balls. Teams will have to play around or over the top. But going forward? I’m not sure Schweinsteiger can provide much that isn’t already being provided.
(The Fire could of course sell McCarty or Juninho, two younger players who have proven to be stars in MLS, but they can't possibly be that stupid.)
And that’s the thing: It’s about resource allocation. The best MLS sides use their resources intelligently. The Fire finally looked like they were heading in that direction, building a solid center of the park that could hold down a midfield. All they needed to do was shore up the defense, bring in some creative attacking players, and they would be off building something.
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They brought in a center midfielder, the exact thing they already had, and if the reported price is correct, they did so at a great cost. That’s not smart resource allocation. That’s signing a big name so you can say you did.
Some Fire fans will say the club needed to do this to show other international players that it’s a team worth coming to, a team that can support a big name. To which I respond: I mean, I guess? But know what else would do that? Winning a ton of games.
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It’s also moving in the exact opposite direction of every smart team in the league right now. Look at ambitious expansion side Atlanta United FC: They targeted young, exciting South American players entering their prime as opposed to aging European names. Two months ago, I doubt many American fans had ever heard of Miguel Almiron or Josef Martinez. After the club scored 11 goals in three games and are selling out every home match, with season tickets already exceeding 30,000, MLS fans know those names now.
FC Dallas have built the most exciting side in MLS over the last few years with a bevy of young, free-flowing attacking players who love taking people on and scoring goals.
The lessons have been learned, or so we thought. This is the future. The thing that gets people excited is winning. Play fun soccer, win games, the fans will turn up.
Signing big, known, aging names? That might work for a week or two, but if the soccer is dire, who’s turning up? You go once, you can say you saw Schweinsteiger play. But if he’s getting outrun in midfield and playing out of position, are you coming back the next week? Why would you?
Again, I don’t think Schweinsteiger will be a catastrophe for the club. He’s a great player and he’ll be able to do a job. But to think this was the right move for the club, or for MLS, is foolish. The team had bigger needs elsewhere, and the league has (for the most part) moved on from signings like this. This is a step back for both.
(Correction: This article has been clarified to show Schweinsteiger's stats were in Premier League play.)