Bastian Schweinsteiger’s heady play has made the Fire a much better and improved side. (Patrick Gorski/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Last year the Chicago Fire won all of seven games out of a possible 34 in Major League Soccer.
This season the Fire already has won three matches and we’re not quite out of April.
While that is a significant improvement and start over the disastrous 2016 season, midfielder Dax McCarty is far from satisfied.
“I think the team has a long way to go,” he said earlier this week.
Perhaps that comes from McCarty’s fiery, never-say-die attitude on the field.
Red Bulls fans will be reminded of that when the defensive midfielder and former team captain returns to Red Bull Arena for the first time Saturday night (7:30 kickoff) since he was dealt to the Fire for $400,000 in allocation money in January.
Chicago (3-2-2, 11 points) finds itself in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, while the Red Bulls (4-3-1, 13) are in third place. That is in marked contrast to the Fire’s 2016 record as it finished last among 20 teams with 31 points thanks to a 7-17-10 mark.
“I think we’re a good team, an improved team from last year, but I think we have plenty of work to do if we want to get to the level that I think we all aspire to get to,” McCarty said in a phone interview from Chicago earlier this week.
The Fire has added several new faces that have made major impacts on the team.
The newcomers include former a pair of Designated Players, German international Bastian Schweinsteiger and Hungarian forward Nemanja Nikolic and McCarty, among others.
“Obviously, we brought in a lot of good players, a lot of veteran players,” McCarty said. “We have a little bit more veteran leadership now that they did the past couple of seasons. and I think that has helped us be successful early on in the year.
“We’re also an experienced team, we’re a flexible team, a team that can play in a couple of different variations, in a couple of different way. We can play in different formations, so that flexibility is very important throughout the year.”
Once one of MLS’ elite teams, the Fire has reached the playoffs only once in the past seven seasons. The club last performed in the post season in 2012, when it finished with a 17-11-6 mark.
McCarty and company want to end the skid this year.
“This team is a lot deeper than they had been in the last couple of seasons,” he said. “We can rely on a bunch of different players, so those are all important key to being a successful team and obviously, it’s early in the season and we’re just trying to continue chug along and try to grind out results.
Besides himself, the 32-year-old Schweinsteiger has made the largest imprint on the team with his leadership and skills on the pitch (two goals and one assists in four appearances). Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you already know that Schweinsteiger made 121 international appearances and was a vital cog on Germany’s 2014 World Cup championship side.
“He’s been a big addition,” he said. “He’s a guy who knows the game really well. He knows exactly how to win. He’s won at the highest level. He’s a guy he doesn’t do one thing unbelievable great in particular. He does every little thing on the field really good. He’s just a really technically sound player and he knows the game really well.
“Any time you’ve got a guy like that, he’s going to make everyone around him better. I think that’s what Bastian brings to our team. He raises the level of everybody around him. There’s something about him, he has a presence about him. He wants the ball in tough situations, he wants the ball under pressure, and he’s a guy who’s going to help us win games. So, we’re really pleased to have them.”
McCarty, who turns 30 Sunday, said he adapted to his new team, new coach (Veljko Paunovic), new system and new surroundings quickly.
“You always have to learn how your coaches want you to play, but I think it’s been a pretty quick transition,” he said. “I’m an experienced player. I’ve been through something like this before, so I know exactly what I need to do to prepare to be at my best. It’s been a good transition. Obviously, I always feel I can improve and get better.
“So, every time I step onto the field I try to improve and get better as a player. I will have to be at my best against that Red Bulls midfield. They’re a very good midfield and they’re going to challenge us in a lot of different ways. So, I embrace that pressure. I feel it’s a good pressure to have and I’m really looking forward to the game.”
Chicago is undefeated (3-0-1) at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.
The team must improve its road performance (0-2-1), and McCarty felt there was no time like the present.
“I think we’ve been really good at home, but we haven’t been good on the road,” McCarty said. “This is where we need to improve. We need to improve our road form and what a better way than to try to get your first win on the road than against one of the best teams in the league.”
Though he knows the Red Bulls like the back of his hand, McCarty figured any knowledge he will bring to the Fire about his former team could cancel things out because New York knows all about him.
“Yeah, definitely. Obviously, they know me very well and I know them very well,” he said. “So, I mean there’s not going to be very many secrets when we step onto the field. That’s a team that doesn’t really change their style of play. They always play kind of the same way, so I feel like if they can do what they do well better than we do, then they’re going to be successful.
“I don’t expect them to change too much because I’m in the other locker room and they know exactly how I’m going to play. They know I want to get on the ball and try to dictate the pace of the game and try to play forward and find our dangerous attacking players. So, it’ll be a good battle but it’ll be a good tactical battle. At the end of the day, we’ll see who comes out on top.”
And oh yeah, about that drive that McCarty has, which endeared him to Red Bulls fans during his 5 1/2-year tenure with the team.
“I probably got it from just how I was raised,” he said. “My family. My father was an athlete growing up. He played every sport growing up, basketball, baseball, football. Then I have a brother who is about the same age as me. We ‘re only 17 months apart, a younger brother at that. We competed at everything we did. Everything was a competition for us growing up. I think that kind of stoked the flames of my competitive personality.”