BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – On what proved to be a wholly miserable 4-0 loss of a night for the Chicago Fire, it was perhaps a telling moment that Bastian Schweinsteiger evoked the most vocal reaction from a largely shell-shocked and subdued crowd at Toyota Park.
The German’s arrival in place of the injured Djordje Mihailovic in the 65th minute got a greeting marked by the expected gusto of a team and fanbase seeking any hope. At that point, they were still just 2-0 down to a team, in the New York Red Bulls, who seemed intent on maintaining their advantage at all costs.
Try as he might, the hugely popular former Bayern Munich and Manchester United midfielder failed to make the desired impact, as a largely outplayed and outthought Fire chased the game with abandon before eventually falling 4-0.
The premature end to the Fire’s season brings with it the discussion on whether this could be the last the Chicago faithful see of Schweinsteiger in their beloved red shirt. But the likable German has made a decided impact both on and off the pitch, with he and wife Ana Ivanovic seemingly very happy in the Windy City. So it seems the decision rests entirely with the 33-year-old, if Fire owner Andrew Hauptman, general manager Nelson Rodriiguez, and head coach Veljko Paunovic can put together a satisfactory package.
However, in the immediate aftermath of a disappointing defeat, ending the Fire's first postseason since 2012, Paunovic, unsurprisingly, kept his cards close to his chest.
“I think this is the moment where we don’t have to talk about these things,” Paunovic said. “Obviously we want Bastian back, we want to have a man and a player like him on and off the field, but this is not even a question for me -- it’s more for Nelson Rodriguez, and I think he already responded, so I’m just going to say the same.”
The Serbian was referencing Rodriguez’s midweek media roundtable, where he seemed optimistic about Schweinsteiger's return.
“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, 'Hey this has gone pretty well,'” Rodriguez said then. “So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and Ana are very comfortable in the city. They love it.
"I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”
And now, with the close of the Fire’s season upon us, it remains to be seen where the German World Cup winner’s future lies.
For his part, Schweinsteiger also towed the company line on Wednesday night, and gave very little away on where he sees his immediate future.
“As Nelson Rodriguez said, we are in talks, we will see how it is, the same with every player here,” he said.
Looking ahead to next season, Schweinsteiger believes the strides made this year can help the current roster reach the next level and compete for trophies with the likes of this season’s MLS Cup favorites Toronto FC.
“You need to give the team a little bit of time,” Schweinsteiger said when asked how far the team is from winning trophies. “It was a great success, achievement, what we did this season, and I think you need to add maybe one or two pieces. If you have 10 steps, I think we took seven.”
“From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian,” Rodriguez added on Wednesday. “We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”
Shane Murray is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.