The Chicago Fire have struggled a bit in the early portion of this Major League Soccer season, tallying just two wins over seven games.
But Atlanta United F.C. players know they can’t overlook the Fire, especially if Bastian Schweinsteiger is on the field.
“He’s been their guy and their distributor their last few games. He’s been sort of a sweeper to build out of the back with,” Atlanta defender Greg Garza said this week. “As the ball moves forward, it seems he moves forward into that center midfielder position. He’s going to be a distributor the whole entire game.”
As Garza said, the 33-year-old German has been a sweeper of sorts for the Fire this year, positioning himself as an outlet for the goalkeeper and centerbacks, then firing long balls up the field. But Schweinsteiger also works up the pitch to help the Fire create chances.
Schweinsteiger has four assists and a goal to his name this season, and has also been a force on defense. Last weekend in a 2-2 draw against Toronto F.C., he did it all, notching a goal and an assist while connecting on 35 passes and winning seven tackles.
“(Zlatan) Ibrahimović, Schweinsteiger, David Villa – those are guys that can really change the game if you give them that our opportunity,” Garza said.
Stopping Schweinsteiger on either end of the pitch will be easier said than done for the Five Stripes, who are looking to extend their unbeaten streak to eight games at 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago.
As a fellow German, Atlanta midfielder Kevin Kratz has admired Schweinsteiger’s play throughout his career. On Saturday, he may be tasked with trying to slow down the talented veteran.
“He’s running all over the place,” Kratz said. “… He knows how to find pockets. He knows if he’s in the back and not needed there, he will step up into the midfield, and if he’s not needed there he will step up one more position.”
Too many attackers?
Gerardo “Tata” Martino may have a good problem on his hands.
Atlanta United has several players exceptional at creating goals. The problem is trying to get them all playing time.
Some folks are clamoring for a “Fearsome Foursome” lineup that would feature Miguel Almirón, Josef Martínez, Héctor “Tito” Villalba and Ezequiel Barco all up top at the same time. Martino showed a glimpse of that last Saturday, inserting Villalba at halftime before pulling Barco at the 88th minute.
But Martino hinted Thursday at training that lineup may not be a thing fans see often. Balance and playing the fittest players is what the manager is striving for.
“Even though we have a lot of great attacking players, we’re not going to play with 10 attackers,” Martino said through a translator. “But, for example, in the last game against Montreal, we had Tito come off the bench at halftime because we needed it. But, we just try to make the team as balanced as possible.”
Martino wasn’t faced with this lineup conundrum earlier this season because of injuries. Barco missed the first five games of the season and Villalba missed much of the preseason and two games in April. Meanwhile, Almirón and Martínez have combined for 12 goals and five assists.
MLS named Almirón as the league’s Player of the Month for April this week. The Paraguayan scored a league-leading five goals in April and also tallied a pair of assists as the Five Stripes went 3-0-1 over April. Almirón, 24, connected on 82 percent of all of his passes in April and completed 110 passes in the final third.
Kratz became the first player in MLS history to score on two free kicks as a substitute last week after he tallied two goals in the Five Stripes’ win over Montreal. MLS records for free kicks only go back to 2003.
Kratz’s first goal, which was the go-ahead score in the 78th minute, was voted MLS Goal of the Week. The 31-year-old German has started just one game this year for Atlanta United, but has seen action in all eight contests, totaling 199 minutes.
“I was just telling myself all the time, ‘Just get it over the wall,’ because from that situation, if you get it over the wall and it’s fast enough, the goalkeeper will have a hard time getting to that corner,” Kratz said at Wednesday’s training session. “So, I was talking to myself, ‘Okay, Kevin. That’s your routine, do it this way. Try to get it over the wall and we’ll see if the goalkeeper is there or not.’”
Spoiler: the keeper wasn’t there.
Watch every replay of this one 😱 https://t.co/9IlTttf4Kn
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) April 28, 2018
After Saturday’s match, Almirón called Kratz the “best free-kick taker on the team.”
Michael Parkhurst was pretty confident Kratz would make the kick too.
“He’s just automatic. He bangs on Brad (Guzan) almost every day in training so it’s really no surprise,” Parkhurst said. “So, credit to him because he just doesn’t miss when he’s given the opportunity. It was pretty incredible what he did.”
Martino said Thursday left back José Hernández (quad) and goalkeepers Mitch Hildebrandt (knee) and Alec Kann (knee) are “unlikely” to be eligible for the 18-man roster versus Chicago.