In need of points after stumbling at home, the Sounders square off in Chicago against a rebuilt Fire squad that has impressed in 2017 after years of dismal performances.
The Chicago Fire, once seen as something appalling, are flipping the script in hopes of becoming something appealing through a series of acquisitions, including World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany. The club started 2017 3-3-3, good enough for sixth in the Eastern Conference standings as they get set to host the Seattle Sounders Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN2).
Professional soccer in Chicago has been a dreary affair for some time. One of the league’s first expansion clubs in 1998, the Fire in recent seasons has slipped to the position of Eastern Conference punching bag.
A 7-17-10 ledger last season meant they were the first team in league history to finish last in the combined standings two years in a row. The Fire also notched the undesirable honor from 2014 to 2016 of going a league-record 36 games in a row without a road win.
Roster turnover has been an issue, 39 players having departed the Fire over the past two years. Two former players, left back Joevin Jones and former Chicago homegrown signee Harry Shipp, landed with Seattle.
Shipp, an Illinois native, looks forward to swinging by his hometown.
“(When I first went to Montreal), I was still coping with leaving and all that,” Shipp said Tuesday. “A year removed, I feel good about where I’m at. It’s a very different team, players-wise, from when I was there. There’s not a ton of personal connections. I’m looking forward to it.”
Shipp’s family won’t be at the game (his sister is graduating from Vanderbilt the same weekend), but he’ll still have a special connection to the club he began watching at Toyota Park as a boy.
“I loved it,” Shipp said. “I was from there. I grew up going to games back in the day. I was always a fan. I still have people writing me message on Twitter and Facebook from back there. It’ll be nice to see some familiar faces in the crowd.”
Fans’ faces may be familiar, but the ones responsible for the club’s improved play will be strangers. The Fire acquired Dax McCarty in a shocking January trade, giving the New York Red Bulls $400,000 in general allocation money for the midfielder’s services. Chicago also secured Brazilian midfielder Juninho from Club Tijuana in Mexico.
The masterstroke was a feat of engineering worthy of the German they secured. The club finalized March 29 Schweinsteiger’s switch from Manchester United on a free transfer after the midfielder failed to garner favor under new manager Jose Mourinho.
Schweinsteiger became the 11th player who had won a World Cup (his with Germany in 2014) to join MLS. The German is also one of a handful of players to come to MLS after winning the UEFA Champions League, which he accomplished with Bayern Munich in 2013.
Concerns swirled around the 32-year-old’s age and health, and many quickly lumped him in with the stereotype of older players joining from Europe: Over the hill, looking for an easy paycheck, ready to coast on past glories.
Instead, Schweinsteiger seems to have fully embraced his U.S. move, and his new teammates. He threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game, joked around with teammates at training, and even did his best to help an uninformed journalist out of a jam when someone asked him in a press conference if he thought he could help lead the Fire to the World Cup.
At $5.4 million per year, Chicago is gambling big that Schweinsteiger can help revitalize a club that is usually pronounced dead every July. So far, it appears to be working.
Club culture and atmosphere can help fuel results. The Sounders and coach Brian Schmetzer know that well enough.
A string of recent poor results doesn’t seem to have dampened Seattle’s spirit. But it is easy to remember the bowed heads and mumbled answers from the team’s 1-9 summer implosion in 2015 or uncertain shrugs following a 6-12-2 start last year that led to Sigi Schmid’s ouster. A continued early season slump might impart the same gloom on Seattle’s locker room.
The Sounders don’t need a rebirth like the Fire. They need a road result after a disappointing homestand. Where once they would have looked at Chicago as an easy evening’s work, they’ll now look across the field and see the same thing that sparked their incredible MLS Cup run: Belief.
Amid all the regular season hubbub, Shipp was all business. Come Sunday, though, he admitted he would reflect on having gone up against one of the game’s greats in his hometown club’s uniform.
“My rookie year I went against (Thierry) Henry, someone I’d grown up watching as an Arsenal fan,” he said. “You forget about it because you’re just scouting like you would anyone else, but after the game you take a step back and go ‘that was pretty cool.’”