Nelson Rodriguez knew the question was coming, and had his answer all teed up and ready to go.
Speaking to media on the heels of a blockbuster move to sign Bastian Schweinsteiger on Tuesday, the Chicago general manager defended the perception that the Fire are going in the opposite direction of the recent MLS trend that has seen many younger Designated Players entering the league.
And he insisted that the German midfield legend still has a whole lot more good soccer left in his tank.
“It’s relative to the individual,” Rodriguez said. “And as we watched Bastian — and we did in the matches he was playing for [Manchester] United — despite the fact that it’s difficult to be in your best form when you’re not getting your regular run of minutes, he was still able to perform and impact games.”
Citing everyone from former MLS DPs David Beckham and Guillermo Barros Schelotto to stars in other sports like Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Tom Brady, Rodriguez dismissed the notion that the 32-year-old Schweinsteiger is too old to excel, even if he did struggle to find the field at Manchester United.
And he also scoffed at the “current trend” that the only way to find a premier attacking midfielder is to “go to Argentina and find a No. 10 fairy tree.” While he didn’t say for sure that Schweinsteiger would be deployed as the team’s No. 10 — that decision will be made by head coach Veljko Paunovic — he did boast about some of the qualities that the German World Cup winner could bring to that role, while playing in front of midfield newcomers Juninho and Dax McCarty.
“Bastian Schweinsteiger is a great player with great vision and a phenomenal soccer IQ,” Rodriguez (pictured below) said. “He doesn’t have the same speed and the same physical elements to his game as he did when he first started as a teenager. But the rest of his game has grown and we believe he will make an impact on the field for us.
“I would just say people would be wary to underestimate the heart and character of a champion.”
Rodriguez also cited Schweinsteiger’s personality as a determining factor in the Fire’s push to acquire him, calling him a “gentleman” and a “role model” that will immediately improve the Chicago locker room. And both he and Paunovic were impressed that Schweinsteiger displayed little frustration or ill will toward Manchester United — which is one reason why it took the club as long as it did to sign him.
The Fire first met with Schweinsteiger last season. But the German held out hope he could prove himself at Manchester United, who also bided their time with the move.
“We were able to wear them down a little bit with our persistence,” Rodriguez said. “We did reach a point where we said it had to be now or it wouldn’t happen.”
Rodriguez does not know yet when Schweinsteiger will be able to join the club, but he’s hopeful he’ll be available for their next game — a home tilt with the Montreal Impact on April 1 (3 pm ET | MLS LIVE). He also admitted that it may take time for him to get match fit since he hadn’t been playing regularly for Manchester United.
But as soon as he steps on the field, Rodriguez expects Schweinsteiger to be a fan favorite on and off the field, admitting the German is a “global image” unlike any the club has seen before. One question now is whether the Fire can ride the momentum of such a marquee acquisition.
“I spoke to the office staff earlier this morning and I mentioned to them that I’m sure, for many, they feel our job just got easier — easier to sell tickets, easier to sell sponsorships, easier to sell merchandise,” Rodriguez said. “But in reality, our job just got harder. With Bastian comes an entirely different standard of excellence and expectations. And this is a call to our entire club that we need to step up our game and meet that challenge and meet that level.”
The Fire GM added that, before signing him, they made sure Schweinsteiger was something who “wanted to collaborate” to raise the profile of a club that’s been at the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the past two years.
But as much as some of the “ancillary benefits” of bringing in a World Cup champion may be nice, Rodriguez wants the move to be judged only as a “soccer decision” and by what happens on the field. And with that in mind, he understands the added pressure that goes along with spending a reported $4.5 million on one older player when a team has other holes that still may need to be addressed.
“If I have to go down, and I go down with one of the greatest champions in the history of soccer, I’ll feel pretty good I made a good choice,” Rodriguez said. “But I suspect Bastian is going to make me a better pro, a better general manager, and he’s going to make us all better. And, in the end, I think we’ll look at this and say, ‘This was a pivotal moment where our ambition and our vision caught up with our hopeful execution to make us a global club.’”