Bastian Schweinsteiger had only just settled in behind a small, circular table when his order of penne Bolognese arrived, accompanied by a glass of cranberry juice and delivered by a server who immediately recognized him as a regular.
The waiter and Schweinsteiger, the German soccer star and World Cup winner, exchanged pleasantries before Schweinsteiger was left to his lunch, which had been delayed by unexpected traffic that had made him late. This qualified as a rare wrong step for the perpetually punctual Schweinsteiger, who, four months after he arrived in Chicago tasked with turning around the city’s struggling Major League Soccer team, the Chicago Fire, has immersed himself in his new city and soaked it up like a sponge.
Almost from the moment he first arrived at O’Hare International Airport’s terminal in March, where he was escorted by the police into a red sea of Fire well-wishers, Schweinsteiger has taken in all Chicago has to offer. He has navigated the city on foot and on bicycle. He is a regular on the shore of Lake Michigan, where he has become enamored of the evening volleyball games at North Avenue Beach. (Only his contract prevents him from joining in, though he’d like to talk to someone about that.)
He has sampled the city’s restaurant scene, thrown the first pitch at Wrigley Field, cheered at Bulls and Blackhawks games, and even walked the runway in a charity fashion show.
And unlike Europe, where Schweinsteiger regularly concealed his identity under the bill of a baseball cap, Chicago has largely afforded him a welcome level of anonymity. While he remains recognizable to soccer fans or others who spot him walking with his wife, the retired tennis champion Ana Ivanovic, Schweinsteiger said he found comfort in being able to move about his new city in ways that were often unrealistic in his previous soccer stops at Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
He feels, he says, at home.
“It was always a case that wherever my job was, that was my home,” Schweinsteiger said. “Of course, when I touch down in Germany and I’m close to my parents’ house, you feel like you grew up there, you were born there. You always say, ‘That’s my home.’ But I always say that Chicago is my home place now.”
“You have your spots,” he added. “You just have to find them.”
Schweinsteiger’s Chicago embrace has not been lost on his teammates, and together this season they have engineered one of Major League Soccer’s biggest turnarounds. The Fire, the league’s worst team the last two years, have spent time in first place this season and have the league’s second-best record heading into Wednesday night’s M.L.S. All-Star Game at Soldier Field. Last week, Schweinsteiger won an online vote that will see him serve as captain for the league’s team against Real Madrid.
More important, at least to teammates like Dax McCarty, who plays beside Schweinsteiger in the Chicago midfield and will join him in the All-Star Game, the most appealing thing about Schweinsteiger — for all his talent and global pedigree, for all the trophies he has won in Europe — is that he has quickly become one of the guys.
“You never want superstars to just come over into training, collect a paycheck and go home,” McCarty said. “You want them to immerse themselves into the culture of the city, learn about his surroundings and where they are. I think it’s actually made him happier and made him play at even a higher level.”
In a matter of months, Schweinsteiger and Ivanovic have made the city their own. Schweinsteiger’s Instagram account, which has 8.6 million followers, has become a public travelogue chronicling the couple’s Chicago wanderings and experiences, whether it be in front of any one of the city’s skyscrapers, posing along the lakefront backlit by the Chicago skyline or crossing yet another culinary experience off their list.
In between his urban explorations, though, Schweinsteiger — invigorated after an unsatisfying, injury-marred stint at Manchester United — has played a vital role in the Fire’s dramatic about-face. But it has required work.
In initial meetings in November with Coach Veljko Paunovic and General Manager Nelson Rodriguez, Schweinsteiger said, he came to grips with the sizable challenge he would face in a move to M.L.S. after a long career in two of Europe’s top leagues. Paunovic told Schweinsteiger in no uncertain terms that the franchise was rebuilding. And, aware of Schweinsteiger’s high standards for both himself and his teammates, Paunovic acknowledged that the franchise would need to do its part, too.
“We had to raise our level so we could satisfy his expectations,” Paunovic said.
So before finalizing a contract for Schweinsteiger, the Fire signed a goal-poaching striker and traded for the fiery McCarty, who has played well enough to win the attention of the United States national team. All the moves seem to be paying off at once: The Fire, who are unbeaten at home in 2017, recently strung together an 11-game unbeaten streak.
Schweinsteiger said he was not yet satisfied. In his mind, there are always more details to address, more small steps to take before anything resembling a championship mentality can take hold in Chicago. Although the Fire won an unlikely M.L.S. title in 1998, their first season, they have missed the playoffs four years in a row, and six of the past seven.
“I’m here to help get the team to the playoffs — I’m not here to enjoy my life,” said Schweinsteiger, who turned 33 on Tuesday. “That’s not how I see myself. I’m here to help the Chicago Fire get back to where they were or to help make changes. I just like the idea from coming up from the bottom. But the work to do that is not easy.”
Rodriguez, perhaps not surprisingly, characterized Schweinsteiger’s transition into the Fire’s locker room as seamless. No maintenance has been required, he said, no special requests or special treatment.
McCarty, for one, noted with a smile that Schweinsteiger flew coach with everyone else on road trips, surely a first in his career. And four months into a working relationship with the Fire and M.L.S., and with the team’s rebuilding process still in full swing, Rodriguez also expects to extend Schweinsteiger’s initial one-year contract once the season ends.
“Bastian, in many ways to me, is Chicago,” Rodriguez said. “There is a grit that is required of being a Chicagoan, but there there’s this friendliness and this warmth and genuine enthusiasm. Now that I see Basti everyday, that’s who he is.”