BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – When Bastian Schweinsteiger leads the MLS All-Stars out on Wednesday (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TSN, TVAS), it will be his first time captaining a team in Chicago.
Despite his stature, the German is not one of the three players who have worn the captain’s armband for the Chicago Fire thus far in the club’s resurgent 2017 season. Those duties instead have fallen to Juninho, Dax McCarty and Michael de Leeuw.
“Obviously for us it’s very important it’s not only who wears the band, it’s what you do on the field,” Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic said. “You don’t need the band to be the captain. That’s something that I understood since I was a player. When I spoke with Basti about that, he had the same opinion about it. Everyone can step up and lead the team in any given moment and support the leaders on the team; that’s how I see that.”
The Fire’s leaders echoed Paunovic’s views on the armband, saying that the team’s leadership duties are spread beyond just one player.
“To be honest, at this point the armband in our team is very symbolic,” Juninho said. “I think the leadership you can tell right away who is a leader and who is not. We have a lot of experience players this year on this team. The armband was the decision of the coach, but we know a lot of the guys can wear the armband when needed to.”
Juninho, the 28-year-old Brazilian, is the clear leader at the top of the Fire’s armband depth chart.
After the departure of Razvan Cocis – the Fire's primary captain in 2016 – Juninho made a strong impression in preseason, despite being a new addition to the club. At that point, other key signings like McCarty and Schweinsteiger had yet to arrive, while Juninho – well-versed in the league from his time in LA – emerged as a leader.
“When they brought me here, they knew what I earned in the league -- and at that point it was before Basti, before Dax -- so the coach made that decision,” Juninho said. “I’m so happy with that and I think I earned that, the kind of respect I’ve been growing in the league these last couple years. It means a lot for myself, but now like I said at that point it’s very symbolic. We have a lot of leaders in the team; that’s why we’re doing good.”
Despite the coaches settling on Juninho as the primary captain, the year began with someone else wearing the armband. Since Juninho was serving a one-game suspension left over from his Liga MX days and McCarty was still settling in with his new team, de Leeuw captained the Fire in their season opener.
Since then, Juninho has worn the armband 14 times (12 MLS starts and two U.S. Open Cup matches), while McCarty, who previously captained New York Red Bulls, has worn it six times and de Leeuw has worn it twice.
“Obviously on our team I think we have many captains,” Paunovic said. “Juni is the one who, at the point where we were in preseason, we decided he was going to be the captain and we stand with him on that decision. After Dax joined, obviously he’s another captain on our team and this kind of thing. We have a lot of leaders on our team and all of them can be in any given moment the captain, but we respect the decisions we made in the past and so far everyone is playing his role, and when it’s the time for somebody to step in in that role he’s ready and we’re happy with that.”
McCarty and de Leeuw have both captained the team with Schweinsteiger in the lineup, but never with Juninho in the starting XI.
“I think in our team we have several (leaders), but everybody takes his leadership different,” de Leeuw said. “Some guys are more vocal in the locker room, some guys are stepping up on the field. That’s the biggest part. … Basti, he’s not worn the band but obviously he’s a big leader, he’s vocally in the locker room -- and Dax, of course. And in the backline you have Johan (Kappelhof) who is a leader, also Joao (Meira). I think everybody is taking his step up.”
“The guy who wears the band, yeah, is wearing the band,” de Leeuw said, “but at the end, the expectation is that everybody is a leader and they step up and lead when your time is there or when the whistle goes.”