Larentowicz thrilled to kick off season with Fire

989531.png

Larentowicz thrilled to kick off season with Fire

AVE MARIA, FL. It will just be an informal match against a college team, but for Jeff Larentowicz, the Fires first preseason meeting with Florida Gulf Coast University on Sunday marks a new beginning.

Larentowicz was the Fires biggest offseason acquisition. He came from the Colorado Rapids for the Fires first-round pick (11th overall) in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft.

"To leave Colorado was tough, but to end up here... I couldnt have asked for more," Larentowicz said after a snappy morning workout on Saturday on the campus of Ave Maria University. "Ive been around the league a bit, but this group is fun to be around and the coaches keep things intense, but still short and to the point. Thats what everyone wants at this time of year."

Larentowicz will play a major role in a midfield that is being tweaked by coach Frank Klopas. Theres plenty of competition for jobs in that part of the lineup, but theres one less candidate after Alvaro Fernandezs move to Qatori club Al Rayyan was finally confirmed.

Fernandez, a late-season acquisition from Seattle in 2012, was the starter on the left side. Larentowicz will probably wind up in the middle.

"Jeffs a leader on and off the field, and one of the most accurate passers in the league," said Klopas. "He brings a lot of physical presence to the midfield and hes been a very consistent player for five-six years."

Larentowicz is one of the rare fourth-round draft picks to earn long-term playing time in MLS. The New England Revolution claimed him with the 45th overall pick in 2005, and he has some interesting ties to the Fire.

One of his teammates and best friends in high school at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia was Dan Gargan, the defender who played for the Fire the last two seasons but was lost to San Jose in the last re-entry draft.

Larentowicz has also been a long-time teammate of Wells Thompson, another Fire midfield candidate. Thompson was acquired late last season. He played with Larentowicz for three seasons in New England and three in Colorado. In fact, Larentowicz and Thompson moved from the Revs to the Rapids together, in a trade that sent defender Cory Gibbs to New England.

Gibbs was a Fire mainstay until suffering a knee injury last year. He retired after the campaign ended.

So now, Larentowicz, Maicon Santos and Joel Lindpere are being counted on to improve the Fire. All came from other MLS teams rather than being the more traditional additions from foreign clubs.

"That is highly unusual," said Larentowicz. "When teams sign players in the offseason, its easier to transfer players in than transfer from within the league. The logistics are easier that way, but its important to get people in who know the league."

The Fire has its second and last preseason match of the first phase of preseason training on Wednesday against the Columbus Crew in Bradenton, FL.

Fire Weekly with Mike Magee to live stream on CSNChicago.com

image1.jpg

Fire Weekly with Mike Magee to live stream on CSNChicago.com

Fire Weekly, presented by Private Bank, at the Heineken Pub97 will live stream on CSNChicago.com Wednesday from 6-7 p.m. The weekly show will also air live on CSN Plus.

Joining show regulars Fred Huebner and Frank Klopas will be former Fire player and 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee Paul Tenorio. They will talk about the big signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Also, the crew will look back on the loss in Atlanta and preview the upcoming U.S. national team qualifiers.

Fire finally land the big one in Bastian Schweinsteiger

Fire finally land the big one in Bastian Schweinsteiger

Bastian Schweinsteiger is going to play for the Chicago Fire.

That sentence being true isn't a big surprise after four months of rumors, but it still may feel odd.

After years of rumors, failed acquisitions and near misses, the Fire finally got a big name. From the Jermaine Jones blind draw to Montreal beating the Fire to Didier Drogba and even the near-signing of Alejandro Bedoya last year, the Fire have been rumored to add notable players on a few occasions in the last few years. This time the Fire finalized the deal and now have a marquee name for the first time since Cuauhtemoc Blanco played for the team from 2007-2009.

The move is an obvious marketing boon for the club. Schweinsteiger is a world famous player who has played for two of the biggest, most well-known and supported teams in the world in Bayern Munich and Manchester United. He has nearly 4 million Twitter followers (which is 35 times what the Fire's official account has).

Scan the internet for reaction to the signing and there is a scattering of 'I have to go to a game now' comments. That's what the Fire are going for.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said Schweinsteiger may be the biggest name to ever play for the Fire.

"I think that there have been other great players who have worn red," Rodriguez said. "Players such as Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Hristo Stoichkov, Peter Nowak… with respect to all of those people I think Bastian is just another strata. It's a result of his having won with every team with which he played. He captured every major trophy for which he's contested. There's not many people in all of sports that can make similar claims."

Stoichkov won the 1994 Ballon d’Or, a world player of the year award, and scored the most goals in the 1994 World Cup so Rodriguez's claim may be dubious, but the point is Schweinsteiger's resume is in the upper tier of players.

On the other side, there are questions about how effective he will be for this team and how he will fit in. Schweinsteiger hasn't played a single Premier League match for Man U this season. He has played four cup games, but it's fair to wonder about the health and effectiveness of the 32-year-old. That said, just because a player can't get on the field for Manchester United doesn't mean he can't still be good enough to be effective for an MLS team.

"Bastian is bringing his quality as a person, as a human and his experience in the locker room," coach Veljko Paunovic said after training on Tuesday. "He's also very professional and there are many proofs for that. I don't think that I have to tell the people who we are bringing in our environment. It's just that we know for sure that he is going to be successful here. He is going to help our locker room grow, learn and win. With all the qualities that he brings on and off the field, I think it's enough for us to have a man and a leader in the locker room that can take us to have a great experience this year."

There have been plenty of big name players to join Major League Soccer past their prime. Some have succeeded (Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, David Villa) and some have not (Rafa Marquez, Freddie Ljungberg, Torsten Frings).

The comparison being mentioned most is Steven Gerrard. Gerrard played the same position as Schweinsteiger and joined the LA Galaxy from Liverpool in 2015 at age 35, three years older than Schweinsteiger is now. He made 34 appearances in a season and a half in MLS and totaled five goals and 14 assists, but struggled to cover ground defensively. Would the Fire be happy if Schweinsteiger turned out to be another Gerrard in MLS?

The timing of the move adds an extra twist considering the Fire just got thumped at expansion team Atlanta, a club which spent tons of money but did so on young South American talent. Not many soccer fans in America had previously heard of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez or Hector Villalba, but Saturday's 4-0 win against the Fire showed all three are among the best talents in MLS and make Atlanta both a contender and a fun team to watch, making name recognition moot.

The best example of younger talent paying dividends is Seattle paying up to land midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro in the middle of last season. Lodeiro was 27 when Seattle signed him and he led the Sounders' turnaround from a team on the brink of falling out of playoff contention into MLS Cup champs.

In a time when the league has started to eschew older talent in lieu of younger players that don't have the name recognition attached to them, the Fire bring in a 32-year-old who hasn't played a league match all season and has a recent history of knee injuries.

Schweinsteiger's quality in midfield has been proven throughout his career and if he still has something left in his knees, he will be a good MLS player. How good and how much better does he make the Fire? That's the $4.5 million question.