Chicago Fire has gone Jurassic World and resurrected a position that seemed extinct in soccer with Bastian Schweinsteiger playing sweeper.
The sweeper is a position that requires a player to drop as far back as the centerbacks and occasionally move as far up the field as the forwards. They look for the ball and/or pockets of space to exploit. It’s a position refined and made famous by Franz Beckenbauer, who led Bayern Munich to three league titles and three European Cups from 1974-76, and Germany to a World Cup title in 1974.
The sweeper requires an ability to understand organization and tactics, to read the flow of the game, how to take advantage of situations, and enough technical ability to handle the physical responsibilities of winning duels as a centerback, the tackling ability of a defensive midfielder, the passing ability of an attacking midfielder and sometimes the finishing ability of a striker.
That combination may be why the position has mostly disappeared (some may say evolved) with the exception of a few teams or managers that employ it. Still, Schweinsteiger, another German legend and former standout at Bayern Munich, is being deployed in that role by Chicago manager Veljko Paunovic.
Atlanta United must get accustomed to the position when it plays at Chicago in Saturday’s MLS match.
“He has the experience throughout the years and also played different positions,” Atlanta United midfielder and native of Germany Kevin Kratz said.
Schweinsteiger, 33, signed with Chicago last season and was deployed mostly higher up the pitch. His impact was immediate in leading the Fire to the playoffs while scoring three goals in 25 appearances.
After Chicago struggled to start the season with two losses and six goals conceded, Paunovic changed Chicago's formation to a 3-5-2 for their third game at Portland and gave Schweinsteiger more duties on defense to keep the back line and midfield organized, with license to get up the field when appropriate.
"He can play in any position and always impacts the game in a positive way," Paunovic was quoted as saying on MLSSoccer.com on April 9 after the game against the Crew. "He can play as a (No.) 10, he can play as a 9, and he can even play as a goalkeeper. Bastian is exceptional and I am very thankful to our owner and general manager for doing everything in their power to bring him here last season, because this way we can get the best results from our team."
Schweinsteiger notched two assists in a 2-2 draw at Providence Park. That was followed with a 1-0 win vs. Columbus, a 1-0 loss at L.A. Galaxy, a 2-1 win at New York Red Bulls, and a 2-2 draw at Toronto in which he had a goal and assist to earn a point after falling behind 2-0 in the first half. After the move, Chicago conceded as many goals conceded in the past five games as the first two.
“Since he’s moved into the back and been healthy they’ve been a more solid team,” Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said. “In Toronto, to come back and get a point in that game shows what they are made out of.”
Some of Atlanta United’s players said they key to minimizing Schweinsteiger’s influence will be for the strikers and midfielders to apply pressure when he has the ball, which will limit his time to pick out a 70-yard pass.
Greg Garza said that Schweinsteiger’s skill is on the same level as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa.
“Those are guys that can change the game if given the opportunity,” Garza said. “As long as we can keep him under control we can build off from that.”