Bastian Schweinsteiger - smiles during Manchester United training - Chicago FIre
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How the Chicago Fire embraced past futility to land Bastian Schweinsteiger

You’re Chicago Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez, and you’ve made it your mission to convince Bastian Schweinsteiger – one of the most decorated players in world soccer – to sign for your last-place team.

How do you pull it off?

You can’t merely offer big money, make him believe in your vision, highlight your city, and maintain regular contact through a dogged, months-long pursuit. You have to differentiate yourself. You have to give him something no one else can.

You have to embrace the suck.  

Chicago certainly had plenty of that to wrap their arms around after last year. The Fire finished in last in MLS in both of the past two seasons, and have missed the playoffs in six out of the last seven. In a league where more than half the teams qualify for the postseason, that’s a remarkable run of futility.

Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic – who are both beginning their second full seasons with the club – knew they wouldn’t be able to run from the Fire’s complete lack of recent success when chasing Schweinsteiger. Instead, they spun it into a positive, pitching the 32-year-old World Cup, UEFA Champions League and eight-time Bundesliga champion on the idea that if he led a turnaround in Chicago, it’d be one of the most impressive feats in his sparkling career.

“More than anything else I found him to be genuinely committed to this challenge, to this opportunity, to this soccer club. If he can make us champions, this would crown his career in a big way,” Rodriguez told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Tuesday.

“At one point he cited LeBron James as inspiration – LeBron left the Heat, he came back to the Cavs, they weren’t very good and he led them to a championship and he’s a legend. And we have been pitching Bastian on trying to join the great iconic, Chicago sports legends like Banks, like Sweetness, like Michael, and it worked out for us.”

Before Rodriguez and Paunovic could sell Schweinsteiger on their high-minded vision of joining Ernie, Walter Payton and Jordan in the Chicago sports pantheon, however, they had to do some serious legwork.

As is often the case with these sorts of things, their pursuit began with a phone call. After adding Schweinsteiger to their wish-list, the Fire contacted Manchester United late last summer to obtain permission to talk to the German legend about potentially moving to MLS in January. Soon after, they placed a Discovery Claim on him, giving them first dibs among MLS teams to sign the central midfielder.

United had no issue with Chicago contacting Schweinsteiger, but he wasn’t initially so gung-ho on a move. Through his agent, he told the Fire that he wanted to concentrate on getting back into United’s first-team after being frozen out following the arrival of manager Jose Mourinho a few months earlier.

The Fire respected that, but continued to occasionally check-in with the German’s agent. Their persistence paid off. In November, after having endured the embarrassment of being sent to train with United’s reserves and still unable to get any regular minutes under Mourinho, Schweinsteiger agreed to meet with Paunovic, who was already headed to Europe for a broader scouting trip, in England.

The pair sat for a four-hour lunch at an Italian restaurant outside Manchester, where they were photographed by English press, kicking off a brief blitz of media coverage. According to Rodriguez, Schweinsteiger and Paunovic immediately connected. Schweinsteiger, who had publicly said that Manchester United would be his last club in Europe, became more intrigued about the possibility of playing in Chicago, and a potential January move began to be discussed. Paunovic kept in touch with him in the weeks afterwards, while Rodriguez maintained contact with his agent.

But as Schweinsteiger grew more interested in the Fire, Manchester United became more reticent to let him go. The Fire had made clear from the start that they weren’t interested in paying a transfer fee for a player United clearly weren’t intent on using, something MUFC fully understood, but a congested schedule around New Year’s and the departure of midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin in January brought Schweinsteiger partially into the fold at Old Trafford.

After making the bench for four EPL matches near the end of the year, he made a pair of FA Cup appearances in January – recording a goal and assist in a 4-0 win against Wigan on Jan. 29 – and saw action in the Europa League in February. His increased, albeit still marginal, role with United, coupled with a busy New Year period for the Fire which saw them add Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho and Dax McCarty in the span of a few weeks, meant things went dark in January.

The Fire began to seriously consider other options, but never lost hope that they’d be able to land Schweinsteiger. Towards the middle of February, they approached again. Timing was key. Rodriguez and Paunovic agreed that they only wanted Schweinsteiger if he was able to come to Chicago early in the season. An arrival in May at the end of MLS’ primary transfer window would’ve been a deal breaker.

With Chicago inching towards “their now or never” deadline, another meeting, this time between Schweinsteiger and Rodriguez, was set for the end of the month. The Fire GM traveled to Manchester, where he met with Schweinsteiger’s agent for several hours before they were both joined by Schweinsteiger for a two-hour talk. Interest was high on both ends, but the deal still had to be closed.

Rodriguez led things off with a no-frills presentation, outlining what Chicago are “trying to build, how we’re trying to build it and how we saw him fitting in.” He talked through MLS’s various intricacies, telling Schweinsteiger that he might “have a middle seat on a cross-country flight” on some road trips, letting him know that he could play in freezing conditions in Chicago one Saturday, then go 90 minutes in brutally humid weather in Houston the next. He spoke about the potential locker room pitfalls implicit with being a highly-paid star playing next to a 22-year-old college grad making the league minimum.

Rodriguez says he wanted to “grill him a little bit,” but that he also wanted to give Schweinsteiger an opportunity to ask him whatever he wanted about the Fire and MLS. He found the German inquisitive, and, most importantly, very receptive to the idea of helping lead Chicago’s rebuilding project.

“He was very well aware that he was not joining a first-place club,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t want to speak for him, so I’ll just say it this way, I got the sense that that made it more appealing, that that made it a greater challenge.”

The meeting closed with Rodriguez showing a video the Fire had produced for Schweinsteiger “that spoke about Chicago and what a world-class city we live in, that spoke about the Fire and who we are and what we will strive to become, and attempted to speak to his competitive spirit and what it could mean if he chose this challenge and then triumphed.”

By the time the credits rolled, Schweinsteiger was on board. Paunovic was already all-in and ownership had approved, now Rodriguez was convinced of the ex-Bayern Munich man's "sincerity and commitment," too. He and Schweinsteiger’s agent, who had been in touch about the framework of a deal periodically throughout the entire process, hammered out an agreement then and there, with only a few minor details left for the lawyers to sort out.

The move wasn’t quite final, however. Manchester United had already agreed to let Schweinsteiger, whose contract with the club ran through the 2017-18 EPL season, walk for free, but they still had negotiate his exit. If they could meet the Fire’s window for an early season arrival, the deal was on. If Schweinsteiger wouldn’t be allowed to leave until the summer, it was dead.

Back in the US, Rodriguez and Paunovic played the waiting game, with Rodriguez keeping in touch with both United and Schweinsteiger’s agent. On March 8, Rodriguez got a call that left him confident that United would meet the Fire’s timetable. Five days later, they officially agreed. All that was left was for the legal teams to finalize things and for the contract, a one-year deal reportedly worth $4.5 million, to be signed.

The Fire expect Schweinsteiger to arrive in Chicago in the middle of next week. If the club receive his International Transfer Certificate and he receives his visa in time, he could make his debut as early as April 1, when the Fire will host Montreal at Toyota Park.

There’s external debate about whether or not Chicago should’ve spent their money elsewhere, but Rodriguez was unequivocal in his confidence that Schweinsteiger will help make the Fire, who've started the year 1-1-1, a contender. 

“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 in a conference call with reporters. “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.’”

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