CHICAGO – There was no shortage of Chicago star power at Soldier Field on Tuesday.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, club owner Joe Mansueto, Park District CEO Michael Kelly and many former players and coaches including 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee were on hand for the Chicago Fire’s official announcement of their return to the iconic lakefront venue.
But what kind of star power will Chicago have on the field come March 21, 2020, when the Fire play their first home game back at Soldier Field against Atlanta United, a team with no shortage of headline-grabbing talent? It’s not a new question, with all three of Chicago’s Designated Players out of contract and an option on playmaker Nicolas Gaitan yet to be decided.
And just minutes before the club began Tuesday’s ceremony to announce the relocation to downtown Chicago, that question became murkier still when Bastian Schweinsteiger announced his retirement. The Fire knew there would be holes to fill this offseason, but losing a former World Cup winner isn’t easily remedied.
“You can’t, I think it’s impossible,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said of replacing Schweinsteiger. “Basti is unique and special. He’s a complete player … we didn’t expect this but we will definitely work towards — I don’t like the word, but — a replacement. I don’t like to say it that way but we have to get somebody who has that charisma and soccer level.”
Paunovic initially approached Schweinsteiger last month about the German legend’s future but wasn’t aware of his decision until just before Chicago’s regular-season finale on Sunday in Orlando. Schweinsteiger then told his teammates after the match, a moment Paunovic described as “difficult and emotional.”
The 35-year-old hasn’t yet said what his future holds, or whether he’ll return to Germany or stay in Chicago, where he currently lives with his wife, retired tennis star Ana Ivanovic, and their two children. The Fire made it clear that there will be opportunities for him to continue to contribute off the field should he be interested.
“I would love to see him stay affiliated with the club in some capacity,” said Mansueto of Schweinsteiger. “He’s such a wonderful ambassador, not only one of the world’s greatest soccer players but just an equally great human being.”
Even with Schweinsteiger gone, Mansueto remains confident in his and the club’s ability to transform the Fire into a contender on par with the likes of their first opponent at Soldier Field.
“There’s no reason we couldn’t be equal to or surpassing those cities,” said Mansueto of Atlanta, as well as Seattle and Portland, where MLS teams regularly attract large crowds and media attention. “I can’t predict whether it’s in one year, three years or five years but to me there’s no question it’ll happen. There’s a rabid fanbase here for soccer and it’s just the timing … I have no doubt we’ll fill this stadium.”
Mansueto stressed that Soldier Field can serve as an asset in that mission, appealing not only to more fans but to more players as well.
“You’re playing right in the center of the city, you’re getting attention, and so I think the whole level of desirability in terms of recruiting will go up,” said Mansueto. “So both for recruiting and for the morale of the current players, I think it will move up nicely.”
As for who will be in charge of recruiting those new players, no final decisions have yet been made. Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez both have contracts for next season, and Paunovic says it hasn’t been confirmed to him one way or the other if he’ll be at the helm in 2020.
Mansueto wasn't definitive on the topic, either. But he did offer his support for both men if they are to join in the club’s new future. The move to Soldier Field brings with it renewed expectations not only for attendance, but for players and coaches as well.
“I think they’re both tremendous assets to the club,” Mansueto said of Paunovic and Rodriguez. “I’d like to see both of them stay for next year, but that said, we’ll take stock in the offseason and make sure we’re filling every slot with a world-caliber person.”