With Schweinsteiger In The Midfield, The Chicago Fire Are, Ahem, On Fire
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In 2016, the Chicago Fire were awful. They finished last in all of Major League Soccer with 31 points from 34 games. The foundations for that pathetic season had been laid in 2015, when they finished last in MLS with 30 points from 34 games.
2017, however, has been a different story. The Fire have already matched their point total from last season, and surpassed their total from 2015, with 18 games still to play, and they're riding an eight-game unbeaten streak in league play.
Much has been made about Bastian Schweinsteiger's impact since arriving on a transfer from Manchester United in late March. He certainly deserves a lot of the credit for the Fire's turnaround, but other key acquistions are being overlooked.
Nelson Rodriguez, the team's general manager and chief architect, had a busy offseason after last season's disappointment. He quickly got to work, signing Nemanja Nikolic from Warsaw Legia for a transfer fee of $3 million. Nikolic has sprinted to the lead in the Golden Boot race this season, with 13 goals in his first 16 games. David Villa of NYCFC and Houston Dyanmo's Erick Torres are tied for second with 10 goals apiece.
It's likely that Nikolic has benefited from being managed by his Serbian compatriot Veljko Paunovic, a promising young manager in his second season with the Fire. Good managers get the most of their talent, and Paunovic has done just that this season.
Rodriguez also traded allocation money for Luis Solignac last August and Dax McCarty in January, and they're both playing at a high level. Solignac has 4 goals and three assists on the season, and McCarty has added three assists as a defensive-minded midfielder.
Armchair Analyst: Dax McCarty refuses to hit the easy pass, and Chicago prosper because of it pic.twitter.com/mxj9x1E6hX— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) June 18, 2017
Perhaps Schweinsteiger knew before joining the Fire that this season's squad was better than the club's 2016 record indicated. As a central midfielder playing alongside McCarty, Schweinsteiger has sprung several attacks while also preventing them from developing in the defensive third. He's tallied two goals and four assists as well, and he probably should have padded those totals if not for some abysmal finishing.
When Schweinsteiger joined the Fire, headlines focused on the discrepancy between him and his teammates. However, it's become clear that his supporting cast is pulling its weight. MLS players voted for McCarty as the most underrated player in the league, and he received a USMNT training camp call up in January for the first time in six seasons.
Nikolic is doing what he did in Poland, which is score a lot of goals (his 28 last season earned him the Golden Boot in Lotto Ekstraklasa). And forwards Solignac and David Accam have combined for 11 goals as vital role players.
There's the opening goal! @ChicagoFire takes the 1-0 lead.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) June 10, 2017
A stellar offseason for Rodriguez and Paunovic has turned the Fire into a playoff team that could make a run at both the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup. Schweinsteiger is going to receive a lot of praise down the stretch, but keep the front office and less-heralded role players in mind.