Since he turned up in MLS a couple of months ago, the Chicago Fire have started winning games. Despite the fact that he is a World Cup winner, Bastian Schweinsteiger is enjoying the luxury of anonymity in the Windy City.
Wrapped in a while towel, Bastian Schweinsteiger looks exhausted as he makes his way the couple of meters from his stall in the visitors' dressing room to the showers. The 32-year-old's hairs is wet with sweat and his head is slightly red, just minutes after his Chicago Fire have earned a hard-fought 2-1 victory away to the New England Revolution, which extended his team's unbeaten streak to eight games. This was also the first time in some three years that the blonde headed man from Bavaria has had to play on artificial turf - yet another new experience.
It has been 10 weeks since he made his move to Major League Soccer (MLS), and he is already accustomed to the pre-game national anthems, reporters in the dressing room and playing league games in a foreign country (Canada). However getting used to artificial turf, which significantly increases the risk of injury, will take more time.
"Once you have adjusted to it, it is okay," he says. "But if you fall on your knee, it really hurts."
'Football god' Schweinsteiger
There are a few Germans among the 21,548 spectators who have turned out to Gillette Stadium just outside of Boston, which the Revs share with the Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. Some of them wear German national team or Bayern Munich jerseys with Schweinsteiger's name on the back. At midfield, three fans hold up three signs, which together spell out "Fuss-Ball-Gott" (football god).
Schweinsteiger is a World Cup winner and a global star, but he was surplus to requirements at Manchester United - coach Jose Mourinho even making him train by himself at one point. But Schweinsteiger wanted to play football, he wanted to have fun again, so in March he signed with Chicago Fire. At his third professional club he is the undisputed general on the field, constantly hollering directions to his teammates. He is in a different class to anybody else on the pitch in terms of how he handles the ball, his passing and his vision.
'Looking for a challenge'
Schweinsteiger chose to go to Chicago despite the fact that the Fire had been the worst team in MLS for two consecutive seasons. He says that changing the Fire's image as a losing club was the "challenge that I was looking for." Since he made his MLS debut on April 1, the Fire have won eight of their 13 games and climbed up to second place in the overall standings, going undefeated in the months of May and June.
Schweinsteiger says the team has improved in terms of its "philosophy of the game, its disposition and its rhythm." He is not able to conceal his pride when he notes that "we have a winning mentality and more of a believe that we can win games, also on the road."
Head coach Veljko Paunovic credits Schweinsteiger with instilling this new attitude. He says the German is "great player," on and off the pitch, in addition to being a "great human being." The Serbian coach praises Schweinsteiger for how he treats everyone involved with the club, saying that the German is always helpful and eager to share his vast experience.
"He knows what it takes to be successful and that is very important for us," Paunovic says.
When he was still at Bayern Munich, Schweinsteiger went into every season with the goals of winning the Bundesliga and the Champions League. With the national team it was the World Cup or the European Championship. In Chicago the goal is more modest - to make the playoffs. Another thing that is new for him is the travel, such as the 2,800-kilometer (1,740 miles) flight from Chicago to Los Angeles the sort of distance that European teams don't generally have to deal - even in the Champions League. Despite all of this, Schweinsteiger says he still enjoys "driving to practice and practicing with the lads on a daily basis."
Just one sellout at Toyota Park
Schweinsteiger is one of the league's most famous names, along with Andrea Piro and David Villa, both of New York City FC, and Orlando City's Kaka. However, MLS still toils in the shadow of the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. Even since Schweinsteiger turned up, the average attendance at Fire home games has been just 12,590 and Toyota Park, with its capacity of 20,000, has been sold out just once.
On the other hand, the soccer players who ply their trade between Washington and Vancouver have a much more relaxed lifestyle than they would in Europe. In Munich or Manchester, Schweinsteiger, along with his wife, former tennis star Ana Ivanovic, could go nowhere without being recognized. In Chicago, they are able to enjoy their relative anonymity.
"It's a bit easier for us to move around in town. There are a lot of times when we go unnoticed, it's something completely new to us," Schweinsteiger says.
A new country, a new league and a new life…