VANCOUVER — The Zlatan Ibrahimović hype gripped Vancouver last Friday. It felt almost like a home game for the LA Galaxy at times, and Whitecaps midfielder Felipe Martins criticized supporters cheering for Ibrahimović, rather than their own team, at half time.
— Adam Serrano (@AdamSerrano) April 6, 2019
Now on Friday at 5:30 p.m. PST, one week after Zlatan visited BC Place, the Whitecaps face another league superstar in Bastian Schweinsteiger. The former 2014 World Cup winner has, however, seen his role change since joining the Chicago Fire in 2017.
Moved back from central midfield to a more defensive role by Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunović, Schweinsteiger is more of a libero rather than a deep-lying midfielder playmaker these days. At the same time, his star power is still very much there, even if the Chicago Fire somewhat struggle to fill SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill.
Off the field, things have not been great for Chicago.
Even after Chicago signed Schweinsteiger, the Fire only averaged 14,806 visitors per game last season. This season, attendance has dropped to just 11,029. It is for that reason the Fire are considering ending their lease at the SeatGeek Stadium and returning to a downtown location at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Not that things have been much better on the field, either.
The Fire head into Friday’s game against the Whitecaps with just one win and two draws from their first five games of the season. At the same time, however, they have managed two respectable results in the last two weeks, beating the New York Red Bulls 1-0 and holding Toronto FC to a 2-2 draw in Canada.
The Whitecaps head to Chicago still looking for their first win of the season after losing four out of their first five games to start the season.
“It doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish,” Felipe said Tuesday. “We have been very close, but the final product hasn’t been there, we work very hard to keep the ball up the field and keep the possession to support the forwards and create chances for us to score. We need to work to put the ball in the net no matter who it is.”
One of those guys could be Fredy Montero. The Colombian forward was brought back at the beginning of this season to guarantee goals for Vancouver but has only scored once this season.
“It is the first time I am in a team that has been in such a long period without winning, but that is soccer and I am 100 percent sure that the victory is going to come,” Montero said this week. “I feel good. Obviously, like any other member of this club, I can do better and I will, but I am not focused on myself because the point that the team is, we need a victory.”
Montero is not the only one to blame for the lack of production. The Caps have been somewhat unlucky with Video Assistant Referee calls this season and in decisive moments have made the wrong decisions on the field — Ali Adnan’s Panenka attempt against LA Galaxy on Friday comes to mind.
“I think they understood the message. I was very frustrated, and it stayed with me throughout the 90 minutes. The more the 0-0 stayed, the more it was in my head, ‘Are you kidding me? They did that?’ you know,” Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos said about the missed penalty opportunity against the Galaxy on Tuesday.
Going forward, however, it is not about past mistakes but getting points on the board. And to do that, Dos Santos is willing to shuffle the board. Against the LA Galaxy, Hwang In-beom was tested as a wide player in Dos Santos’ 4-3-3 formation.
“It only seemed like he was playing out wide on TV, because of the system they showed, but he drifted a lot to the middle where he had a lot of freedom. We asked him to stay close to the number 9 to create a dynamic between him [Russell] Teibert and Ali [Adnan] that would allow those two to create width on the left side and allow In-beom to become the number 10,” Dos Santos explained. “But in the defensive process we asked him to drift to the left to help the team.”
Dos Santos’ thought process is that playing In-Beom in that role will allow the Whitecaps to become more fluent on attack and create room for strikers, such as Montero or Joaquín Ardaiz, who started against the Galaxy, to score. Thus far, the plan has not worked. And against Chicago, with the experienced Schweinsteiger playing centerback, the task will not become any easier.