VANCOUVER, BC – Carl Robinson was asked this week about his memories playing against Bastian Schweinsteiger, who Vancouver Whitecaps FC are set to face on Saturday when they pay visit to Chicago Fire at Toyota Park (4 p.m. PT on TSN1 and TSN 1410 radio).
His answer: “Not good.”
Robinson, a former Welsh international, went head-to-head with the longtime Bayern Munich midfielder in a Euro 2008 qualifying match at Millennium Stadium back in 2007.
“I actually said to the guys the other day that he was probably the hardest player I played against,” Robinson told reporters.
Germany won the match 2-0.
Safe to say, Robinson will be hoping for a better outcome this weekend.
The task will be a big one once again, however. After finishing dead-last in Major League Soccer the last two seasons, the Fire sit second in the league with a 10W-3L-4D record heading into the weekend. They have already surpassed their win total from the previous two seasons.
This is a new-look Chicago team – a team who have yet to lose at home this season and a team who are unbeaten in their last nine matches, outscoring their opponents 20-5 in the process.
A number of different players have contributed towards their turnaround.
Newcomer Nemanja Nikolic is the MLS Golden Boot leader with 14 goals, Ghananian winger David Accam has taken his game to another level with 10 goals and six assists on the season (including a hat-trick vs. Orlando City SC on the weekend), and fullbacks Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent have chipped in with a combined five assists.
But let’s not kid ourselves: it all starts in midfield.
The Fire brought in Schweinsteiger and MLS veteran Dax McCarty this year – and they have helped transform the Illinois outfit into an early MLS Supporters’ Shield contender.
The stats speak for themselves.
Schweinsteiger is averaging a whopping 91.07 touches per game, which is the third highest total in MLS. He’s also fifth in MLS with 62.43 successful passes per game. And, in both instances, McCarty isn’t far behind him. These guys are pulling the strings.
McCarty is away with the U.S. national team this weekend (and Accam with Ghana), so the ‘Caps may have caught a little bit of a break there. But Chicago has another central midfielder you may have heard of named Juninho, a three-time MLS Cup winner with LA Galaxy.
So it’s certainly going to be a big test for the Blue and White either way.
Let’s go back to Schweinsteiger for a second, though. The FIFA World Cup and UEFA Champions League winner loves to drop deep, often between the two centre backs, and collect the ball to start Chicago’s attack. Here’s a prime example from this past weekend against Orlando.
Schweinsteiger has five assists on the season, which is second best on the team, but his ability to cut open defences doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet – as MLSsoccer.com analyst Matthew Doyle illustrates here. When you give a player of that calibre time on the ball, he will make plays.
The key, then, for Vancouver? Don’t give him time on the ball.
If the ‘Caps can stop Chicago’s attack at the source (in other words, at Schweinsteiger) and win the ball in the opposition half, they can focus more on attacking rather than defending.
“You have to respect the top players in the league and Bastian is certainly one of them,” Robinson said. “People who haven’t seen him before, our younger players, he’s a top player because he does the simple things. He’s a very smart player. His quality we know is second to none. It will be a great challenge for someone who will have a role of being around him. I want us to respect him, but not be afraid. Just show how good we are. Because we’ve got some exciting players as well.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s match vs. Chicago is set for 4 p.m. PT at Toyota Park (TSN1 and TSN 1410 radio). The ‘Caps will then host David Villa’s New York City FC on Wednesday, July 5 at BC Place (7 p.m. PT – tickets still available) before MLS breaks for the group stage of the Gold Cup.