Schweinsteiger, McCarty & Co. setting tone for Chicago's ambitious rebuild
The dejection among the group afterward was actually a sign of progress.
Last year -- in any of the past seven years, really -- the Chicago Fire would have gladly taken a road draw at the LA Galaxy and treated it as a legitimate moral victory. Yet last weekend, after letting a two-goal halftime lead turn into a 2-2 tie, the flight back to the Midwest was somber.
"That proves this team feels confident in itself," Chicago coach Veljko Paunovic told ESPN FC in a phone interview. "They know they can win games."
It's been a long time since that was anything but an empty platitude in Bridgeview, where the Fire will host the MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).
When Paunovic took over in late 2015 after leading Serbia to the U20 World Cup championship, he inherited a Fire team coming off the worst season in club history. Along with new sporting director Nelson Rodriguez, Paunovic oversaw a major overhaul.
Full-scale rebuilds are somewhat rare in Major League Soccer compared to other American professional sports. A forgiving playoff system that allowed 60 percent of the league's teams into last year's playoffs is designed to keep nearly every team in the hunt into the final month. The format discourages introspection, especially given how often low seeds make deep runs.
Yet if ever there was an MLS club open to building from scratch, it was the one whose only postseason berth since 2009 lasted all of 90 minutes in the 2012 knockout round. It was the one that had known success -- under coach Bob Bradley, the Fire won the 1998 MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double in its inaugural year of existence -- only to gradually slide downhill from those heights.
Chicago's roster has been a steady churn for 18 months now. Hometown standout Harry Shipp was an early casualty, dealt to Montreal before last season. Whether the move was designed to be symbolic or not, it spoke to just how far Rodriguez and Paunovic were willing to go to start fresh.
Last year saw only the most modest of improvements. The Fire again finished in last place in the entire league, 20th out of 20, but this time with three fewer losses and one additional point.
This past offseason was more transformative.
Juninho, the unheralded glue guy of three Galaxy MLS Cup championship teams, was added on loan from Club Tijuana in late December. Dax McCarty, who captained the New York Red Bulls to back-to-back regular-season conference titles, came in via trade a month later.
It's a tactic familiar to perennial losers worldwide desirous of a quick turnaround, importing a winning culture through players that have tasted success elsewhere.
"You need winners," Paunovic said. "You need guys with experience and character, and that want to share that."
That was a major impetus behind the headline-grabbing signing of World Cup champion Bastian Schweinsteiger from Manchester United as well.
Many around the league derided the expensive addition of a 32-year-old as an antiquated move -- Schweinsteiger is unlikely to have made friends in MLS with the interview he gave this week, either -- but his acquisition has so far had its intended effect.
The force of his personality and weight of his prior accomplishments showed from the moment he walked in the door.
"He's always so calm," defender Johan Kappelhof said. "When he's calm, the guys around him will be calm, too. He's always laughing and always bringing positive spirits."
Though it wasn't immediately evident just how Schweinsteiger, Juninho and McCarty would function as a midfield triumvirate, it is clear that those three are setting the tone behind Chicago's ambitious rebuild.
"They're never satisfied," Kappelhof said. "Things can always be better. They're not satisfied even when we win ... They're important voices in the locker room. They know how it works in clubs that are on a very good level, and they give us tips of how to improve."
At halftime of last weekend's match, while most of his younger teammates were still buzzing after such a strong start, McCarty stood up in the locker room and cautioned them that LA wasn't going to go down quietly. Sure enough, the Galaxy hit back on a pair of second-half corner kicks to salvage the draw.
"[McCarty] has that experience in the league," Kappelhof said. "He knows what's coming."
Chicago remains a work-in-progress; Paunovic used that phrase multiple times during our brief interview. The Fire are 3-3-3, average in almost every way. They are middle-of-the-road in goals scored and goals against, unbeaten at home and winless on the road.
For the Fire, though, average is a drastic improvement. Crank that up a notch to good, and the signs of progress will be measured in wins rather than come-from-ahead draws.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.