The Fire on Monday acquired Schweinsteiger from Manchester United, finalizing a move that injects credibility and international star power into a rebuilding club that has finished at the bottom of the standings the last two seasons.
Schweinsteiger, 32, comes to Chicago as only the second reigning World Cup champion to move to MLS. He could join coach Veljko Paunovic’s team by the middle of next week, depending on his P1 visa application and a physical.
“We’re adding someone who has won at every level, including the very highest levels, and has done so in a way that is consistent with our values,” Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “We as a club will now be forced to hold ourselves to a higher standard, an accountability level. Previously, I think we could satisfy ourselves with what is known domestically. Now we need to rise to a standard that is set more internationally.”
Schweinsteiger signed a one-year designated player contract that guarantees him $4.5 million in 2017, a source close to the team said. The deal makes him one of the 10 highest-paid players in MLS and includes a mutual option for at least one more year.
He’s the latest European heavyweight to extend his club career in the United States, and he brings a resume that matches any of the brightest MLS stars.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always sought opportunities where I hoped to make a positive impact and to help make something great,” Schweinsteiger said in a statement via the club. “My move to Chicago Fire is no different. Through my conversations with Nelson and Pauno, I’m convinced by the club’s vision and philosophy and I want to help them with this project.”
Schweinsteiger has scored 24 goals in 121 career appearances for the German national team, including a start in its victory over Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final. His 13 seasons starring for Bayern Munich included the 2013 Champions League title and eight titles in Germany’s top division. He won Bundesliga player of the year honors in 2013.
“In the locker room, he will be a huge example of a champion,” Paunovic said. “He still is somebody that can show that on the field and (demonstrate) how our guys have to work, prepare, behave, think and work together in order to get to that level.”
Keeping the deal to one year helped push the agreement over the finish line, Rodriguez said. With the MLS season underway and the Fire off to a 1-1-1 start, management wanted him on board as soon as possible. The Fire had hoped to acquire him before the season, but Manchester United was reluctant to part with a quality reserve, even if his playing time was scarce.
Schweinsteiger had been on the outside of United’s plans since Jose Mourinho took over in May 2016. Late last summer, the vaunted English club granted the Fire permission to begin exploring a move, Rodriguez said.
When Schweinsteiger — who is married to retired tennis star Ana Ivanovic — and Paunovic were photographed in November at Piccolino restaurant on the outskirts of Manchester, the soccer world speculated Schweinsteiger was on his way out of the Premier League. As it turns out, that meeting built the bridge.
Paunovic and Schweinsteiger chatted that day for hours about what the Fire are hoping to build, Paunovic’s brief MLS playing career and what Schweinsteiger still hopes to accomplish as a player. Their lunch ended only when Schweinsteiger expressed concern that Paunovic would miss his flight that evening.
“The conversation was so spontaneous, so natural and so inspiring for both sides,” Paunovic recalled. “At one point it became a very personal conversation. I think that also helped for both sides to understand how we can help each other and how much value we can get from this for both sides.”
There is outside curiosity about Schweinsteiger’s form because of his extended absence from United’s starting lineup. But for Paunovic and Rodriguez, that was satisfied Jan. 29 when Schweinsteiger had a goal and an assist in United’s 4-0 win over Wigan in the FA Cup.
He has played as a substitute in only one match since and has not appeared in a Premier League match all season, but Paunovic is comfortable that Schweinsteiger has been training to be at match fitness.
“We know it’s going to take some time and adjustment for him coming to the new league, new coaching staff and everything,” Paunovic said. “We also know we can rely on his capacity to adapt and do that fast.”
Before long, Paunovic expects Schweinsteiger’s deft first touch and passing creativity to help the Fire’s attack.
“He can produce actions that few players in the world can do,” Paunovic said. “He sees (things) that nobody sees. He opens the eyes of the fans, where you can hear the people say, ‘Wow!’”
Even before Schweinsteiger dons his familiar No. 31 in the weeks ahead, the soccer world might look at the Fire’s big-money acquisition Monday and say the same thing.