New Guy Looks Good, But Can’t Do Everything

CHI v MON 2017-04-01

(Photo courtesy Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

Bastian Schweinsteiger’s debut for the Chicago Fire on Saturday hardly could have gone better had it been scripted. He scored to put his team on top and was the midfield general that the Fire so desperately need him to be. Unfortunately, a Designated Player can only do so much on his own;  the Fire were plagued by lackluster finishing and some unforgivable defending and had to settle for a share of the points with the Montreal Impact in a 2:2 draw.

Schweinsteiger, after just three days of training, seemed to fit comfortably into the Fire’s midfield. He could be found at either end of the field and almost everywhere in between, making himself the focal point of the Fire’s attack. He was everywhere that he needed to be and basically took the wheel and started driving the car. The message he seemed to be imparting was, “Follow me, boys, let’s go score some goals.” Although the Fire found the back of the net just twice on Saturday, one can imagine that the scoring chances will be piling up once the new guy gets in sync with the rest of his teammates.

Despite all of the positives that Schweinsteiger brought to the field, the fact is that the Fire’s lack of defensive discipline continues to be their Achilles heel. General Manager Nelson Rodriguez finally landed the big fish; he now needs to use whatever leftover Allocation Money he has and improve the backline. Fundamental errors prevented the Fire from getting all three points and only a miracle goal deep into stoppage time allowed the Fire to even get one. A team’s home field has to be its fortress. Toyota Park has never been that for the Fire and constantly leaving the gate open is no way to climb the Eastern Conference standings.

At Schweinsteiger’s introductory press conference last Wednesday, coach Veljko Paunovic was coy about how his new midfielder would be deployed versus Montreal. No one, except maybe Schweinsteiger himself, could have expected him to go the full 90 after a whirlwind week. After being in Mourinho Exile in Manchester since last August, Schweinsteiger arrived at Toyota Park with a full tank of gas and had no intention of stopping until the referee blew the final whistle.

Paunovic sent out his usual back four, except for Jonathan Campbell subbing for the suspended Johan Kappelhof. The four-man midfield comprised Dax McCarty at holding mid and Schweinsteiger, Juninho, and Arturo Alvarez in front of him. Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam started at striker. This began nominally as a 4-1-3-2, with McCarty staying put in front of the back four. Once Schweinsteiger began showing his influence all over the field, the attacking structure was bit more amorphous. If anyone had doubts that Schweinsteiger represented some sort of midfield redundancy, Schweinsteiger made it clear that he is in a position to make everyone around him better.

This was a match that the Fire needed to dominate. Montreal was missing two key players in Ignacio Piatti and Laurent Ciman. The Fire generally controlled the run of play, but made enough blunders in the back to keep an organized and disciplined Montreal side in the contest.

The Fire pushed their early advantage into a 1:0 lead in the 17th minute off of a corner kick play that was obviously rehearsed in training. Alvarez knocked the ball straight back to Accam, who sent it centrally to Juninho. As Montreal’s players moved forward, Juninho sent the ball to Accam in the right channel. Accam delivered a cross to Schweinsteiger, unmarked throughout the sequence. Schweinsteiger met the ball with a forceful header to open his account. It’s pretty bad tactics to leave the opponents’s best player unmarked on a corner kick.

The Fire continued to control the tempo comfortably for the remainder of the half, but were unable to add to the lead. Schweinsteiger was terrific as orchestrator, but the fine tuning will come as he spends more time with his new teammates.

That lack of precision in front of goal proved decisive, as Montreal equalized just after the hour mark. It was a simple play, as Chris Duvall sent a cross in from the right wing and Matteo Mancosu headed in from close range. The simple play could have been nullified by some simple defending. Campbell misjudged the trajectory of the cross and thus allowed Mancosu to ghost in behind him for an easy header.

The game took a strange turn in the 71st minute, when Juninho was booked for a second time in the match. Montreal took greater initiative at this point, and the match became an end-to-end type of game.

Things became stranger still nine minutes later. Schweinsteiger played an elegant and inch-perfect pass into space from the halfway line for the sprinting Luis Solignac, who had come earlier for Nikolic. Solignac’s positioning was brilliant, just behind the left shoulder of Victor Cabrera. The pass came past Cabrera on his right, so he had no way of knowing where Solignac was until it was too late. He grabbed at Solignac’s arm just as the ball arrived and referee Imsail Elfath sent Cabrera to an early shower for disallowing a scoring opportunity. Schweinsteiger nearly made the Impact pay a heavy price for that foul, but his free kick did not clear Montreal’s defensive wall. Pity, as he had Evan Bush’s left-hand post all to himself.

The ghosts of the past two Wooden Spoons raised their ugly heads in the 90th minute, as the Fire conceded the most hideous of goals. Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla dribbled leisurely on the left side, advanced towards the Fire penalty area and fired a low shot that eluded Bava. it was the kind of goal that leaves behind the acrid stench of ineptitude. Michael Harrington hardly made a move towards Tabla, the kind of defending that every forward loves. Goalkeeper Jorge Bava shares a good portion of the blame for allowing the ball to get behind him. Tabla’s shot was not an especially hard strike, nor was it tricky. These are the saves that every team expects their goalkeeper to make. Bava was unable to snare a few other opportunities earlier in the match, deflecting balls into the middle. Those deflections could have proved disastrous, but no Montreal players were able to take advantage.

But the Fire did not hang their heads and got their reward in the third minute of stoppage time. McCarty poked the ball away from a Montreal player and sent it immediately to Solignac, at the top of the arc. Solignac trapped the ball with his chest and turned quickly to hammer the ball low into the left corner of the goal.

To be sure, the Fire still have some problems to solve if they want to be a serious playoff team. But this is a game to focus on what could be, rather than what might hold the team back. Schweinsteiger’s play, both from a technical and cerebral sense, was the kind of soccer that fascinates and mesmerizes. His pinpoint passes, his sense of timing and his ability to see situations developing long before they become real are why soccer is called “The Beautiful Game.” Schweinsteiger’s contributions to the Fire will be measured in more than goals and assists. How he affects his teammates and lifts their quality to new heights will truly show why it was a good idea to bring him here.

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