Schweinsteiger the sweeper? Fire's star shines in both midfield and defense

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – It’s been quite an eventful few weeks for Bastian Schweinsteiger as he adjusts to significant change in both his personal and professional life.

The Chicago Fire star and his wife Ana Ivanovic welcomed their first child, Luka, into the world on March 19 in Chicago. And while that arrival has brought some change to life off the field, the German has also had to contend with the demands of a new, more defensive role in the red jersey, a move he has embraced with typical confidence and professionalism.

After the Fire conceded six goals in their opening two games, and with a growing list of defensive options consigned to the injury list, head coach Veljko Paunovic decided to drop the versatile 33-year-old into an unaccustomed sweeper role as part of a fluid back three/back five against the Portland Timbers.

While the decision raised some eyebrows among the Fire fanbase, there was little argument with the results. Schweinsteiger adjusted to the demands of the role with aplomb, combining a solid defensive display with two assists as he picked up Man of the Match honors in a 2-2 draw.

Fast forward to Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC, where Schweinsteiger was again instrumental in the team’s first clean sheet and first win of the season. It’s easy to see why Paunovic has placed so much trust and responsibility in the German World Cup winner.

“He can play in any position and always impacts the game in a positive way,” Paunovic said. “He can play as a [No.] 10, he can play as a 9, and he can even play as a goalkeeper. Bastian is exceptional and I am very thankful to our owner and general manager for doing everything in their power to bring him here last season, because this way we can get the best results from our team.

“I think last season, and he showed it in this game, that Bastian also enters into distinct roles throughout the game and he has no problem doing so.”

Schweinsteiger’s resilience at the back was tested to the limit by a Columbus team who did everything but score in a rampant offensive display that deserved a greater return.

“Last year we conceded a lot of goals, and we also gave away easy goals also in our first games against Kansas [City], Minnesota and Portland,” Schweinsteiger said. “Even today, I have to be honest, we gave away some chances for Columbus to score a goal. We still have to work on that, we still have to learn, develop playing against the ball, we have to defend. But what I like is the mentality of the team. Even if it’s hard, we never give up and we try to help each other and that, for me, is very important. That’s why I’m very happy that we won this game because it should give us confidence.”

The German led by example with a team-high 11 clearances from his new position, proving a robust barrier between Crew SC and the goal, or goals, their performance merited.

“I think it’s one way how we can play,” Schweinsteiger told MLSsoccer.com. “Obviously, everyone knows that I am a No. 6 or No. 8. But we need always to analyze the opponents, we need to see how can we maybe defend, and with our situation with a lot of injured players as well, what’s the best way to play, and our coach decides every time.”

“You even see it in the game, sometimes we change, sometimes I step up, sometimes I play there [in defense],” he added. “I’m happy that today we had a clean sheet even when Columbus had many chances, but at the end there is a zero and I’m very happy for our goalkeeper Richard [Sanchez] and also for the whole team that we didn’t allow a goal.”

Perhaps no one has benefitted more from Schweinsteiger’s switch to defense than Sanchez, who earned his first clean sheet of the season, and first in six career professional appearances with the Fire.

“Somebody of his caliber and the experience he has, it’s great to have on the team,” Sanchez, 24, said of playing behind a defense marshaled by the former Bayern Munich and Manchester United midfielder. “I learn from him day in and day out, and even off the field, he is a great person. I admire him for what he does for us in the club and I hope to continue learning from him. However Pauno decides to put him, I think Basti has been able to adapt, obviously, and he’s been a great help.”

One man not so happy about the German’s move further back the field is reigning MLS Golden Boot holder Nemanja Nikolic, who came up with the game-winner against the Crew when he pounced on a poor Zack Steffen pass in the 27th minute before slotting home.

“Me, as a striker, I want him close to me because he plays good balls into space, he sees really good on the pitch, like also Dax [McCarty], they are really good players on the pitch for us in the middle, they give us the balance,” Nikolic said.

“But, you know, one player can not be everywhere, so sometimes we need to make decisions and we also practiced a couple of formations we want to play,” he added. “Sometimes Basti is behind, sometimes he is, like in the second half, he was close to the goal … I like Basti more close to the striker, but on the other hand I know that sometimes he’s also an important part for the defense.”

As for embracing the new challenges of fatherhood, Schweinsteiger seems to be taking it all in his stride.

“So far it’s been very good,” he said with a smile. “I have a very good organization at home so that I can focus on my sport.”