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Sports

Bastian Schweinsteiger sparks Chicago Fire resurgence

The MLS is trying hard to shed the reputation of being a something of a retirement home for aging European stars. Bastian Schweinsteiger, for one, is proving that he has more football left in him than some had thought.

Three years ago, Bastian Schweinsteiger was celebrating his birthday in Ibiza with Neymar weeks after winning the World Cup with Germany in Brazil. From battling, bloodied-face and all, on the pitch in Brazil to partying, Schweinsteiger looked like a man completely unfazed by turning 30.

On August 1, as Schweinsteiger blew out a few more candles on his cake, he had bounced back from a sad ending to his Munich career and a disappointing stint in Manchester to do what all sporting greats do - adapt.

Leaving Manchester for Chicago, Schweinsteiger looked yet another European player heading west to delay retirement. But in just 18 games, retirement looks further away now than it has for some time.

The Chicago Fire currently sit second in Major League Soccer's (MLS) Eastern Conference, haven't lost at home and earlier in the season enjoyed an 11-game unbeaten streak in which Schweinsteiger more than played a part. The brakes have been put on after two successive defeats, reminding that one man doesn't make a team but Chicago are still well placed.

"His ability to impose a rhythm on the game, and to control where it's played, is still unmatched," Matthew Doyle, senior writer at MLSsoccer.com, told DW.

"Schweinsteiger, along with Dax McCarty, has helped turn the Fire from one of the worst possession teams in MLS to a team that typically controls most matches," Danny Santaromita who covers Chicago Fire for CSN Chicago said. "His passing ability, vision and ability to direct traffic has changed the way the team plays."

Considering Chicago were the worst side in the MLS in the last two seasons, the club's turnaround is fairly remarkable - and Schweinsteiger is at the heart of that.

"Chicago's got good talent - most of them in prime ages - from front to back. Put a player like Schweinsteiger in the middle of that, and you get beautiful, winning soccer," Doyle added.

"The perception of the club has totally flipped," Santaromita said. "A year ago the Fire struggled just to get shots on target, but now the team is revered as one of the best in the league."

It is hard to believe that the man who struggled moving from Munich to Manchester looks so comfortable in transforming Chicago. With him on the field, Chicago score more goals, have more of the ball and concede fewer. They are, in short, a different team with number 31 on it. Not is only is the team playing better, but it's also getting better. McCarty has impressed, but so too have top-scorer Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam.

Many were hesitant when the former Germany man arrived, and Schweinsteiger himself even admitted that the understanding of the game across the pond was lacking. Not only has he proved the doubters wrong, but thanks to the 500 appearances for Bayern Munich and 121 for his country he has also gone some way to improving that understanding.

The quality of football in the MLS is improving and more and more focus is being put on developing academy players. That is gradually beginning to bear fruit in the US national team, but as Doyle correctly said, "there will always be room for guys like Schweinsteiger."

Perhaps what sets Schweinsteiger apart is that he is the full package. Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic said upon Schweinsteiger's arrival: "I think we got not only a world class player, but a world class person."

Schweinsteiger attends charity events, is spotted supporting bigger sports teams in Chicago and constantly seems to tread on the tangible side of his social media management. He is a sporting hero fans feel they can relate to, a man who incorporates success the way America loves. No wonder he's already on a Chicago Fire mural in the city.

Last week, Schweinsteiger was fittingly voted captain of the MLS All-Star team to face Real Madrid on Wednesday. After the show, the 33-year-old will face a run of 13 games that could see the Fire return to the promised land. The club's last and only MLS championship came back in 1998, and the Fire haven't made the playoffs since 2009.

Last year, Chicago erupted when the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in more than seven decades. Schweinsteiger and his teammates believe they are ready to deliver the city a soccer sporting story for the ages.

In an interview with German daily "Die Welt" at the start of June, he said: "I don't know how long I'll play in the MLS."

Even if he stays for just one season, it seems yet another team in red will have benefitted from his presence for years to come.