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Schweinsteiger aims to make Fire hot again in Chicago

Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Impact on April 1.
(Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Between them, Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and his wife, tennis champion Ana Ivanovic, have competed on six continents and played in some of the most hallowed stadiums in the world.

But they had never seen hockey in person until last month.

“It was a cool experience,” Schweinsteiger said of the Blackhawks’ playoff game they attended. “We liked it.”

Two weeks earlier, they were at a Bulls’ game and then on Tuesday, Schweinsteiger threw out the first pitch for the Cubs, completing something of a Chicago Triple Crown by attending three games by three teams in three sports.

And all three teams differ from the Fire in one significant way: They all made the playoffs, something the Fire hasn’t done in four seasons. So although Schweinsteiger’s been in Chicago less than six weeks, he’s already caught on to the city’s sporting hierarchy — and the Fire’s place in it.

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“Chicago is a city of sports,” said the former Bayern Munich and German national team standout. “You have the Blackhawks, you have the Cubs, you have the Chicago Bulls. These are all great teams. My wish is to get the Chicago Fire on the same level.”

He’s already making a difference, scoring his first MLS goal 17 minutes into his first game, a 2-2 draw with Montreal. The Fire then won Schweinsteiger’s next two starts, matching their longest winning streak in two years.

If the Fire (3-3-2) can squeeze out another victory Saturday against the stumbling Galaxy (2-5-1) at StubHub Center (7:30 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes), they’ll be halfway to matching their highest win total since 2013.

Chicago will try to do that against a Galaxy team that hasn’t scored in more than 187 minutes — and hasn’t scored at home in a month. Moreover, the Galaxy’s three losses in five home games equals the total from the last two seasons combined. So with his team entering Friday 10th in the 11-team Western Conference, new Coach Curt Onalfo is beginning to feel the heat.

As for the Fire, Schweinsteiger’s contributions on the field were only part of the reason he was brought to Chicago. The team hasn’t had a major gate attraction since 2013, when Mike Magee was the league’s MVP. And they haven’t had a big-name designated player since Cuauhtemoc Blanco returned to Mexico after the 2009 season.

As a result, the team was second-to-last in attendance the last two seasons — and fourth from the bottom the year before that. And though the team has experienced only a modest uptick in attendance since Schweinsteiger’s arrival, a crowd estimated at 500 showed up at the airport to welcome him, and in his first two weeks with the team, the Fire sold more than 150 season tickets.

“Chicago knows what a big deal they made,” Arne Friedrich, who played with Schweinsteiger on the German national team before spending his final year with the Fire, told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s going to be a win-win situation.”

But only if they win on the field. The Galaxy got a bump in interest when they brought an aging Steven Gerrard over from Liverpool two years ago, then made their two earliest playoff exits since 2008 with him in the lineup. New York City FC had even less luck with Frank Lampard, losing more than half the games the 37-year-old started.

Partly as a result of that, Major League Soccer pledged to pursue performance, not personalities, in its future designated player signings. The 32-year-old Schweinsteiger defies that rule as he continues to possess both traits despite his age.

So after he fell out of favor with mercurial manager Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, Chicago pushed hard to get him to MLS on a free transfer, pairing him in a rebuilt midfield with former Galaxy favorite Juninho and MLS all-star Dax McCarty.

“I always wished, in my career, to experience the MLS,” said Schweinsteiger, who also noted that he hopes to elevate the league as he lifts the Fire.

“In America you have the best league in basketball, baseball, American football and ice hockey. Why don’t you have the best league in soccer? I just wondered [to] myself, ‘Why not bring the MLS on the same level like the Spanish league or the Bundesliga?’”

Clearly Schweinsteiger is not intimidated by the impossible. Which is why he smiled politely during his introductory news conference as a reporter asked him whether “World Cup gold for Chicago Fire is a realistic expectation.”

General Manager Nelson Rodriguez quickly stepped in to explain that the World Cup isn’t a club competition and that the Fire can’t play in it. However, no one is dismissing the idea of an MLS Cup for Chicago in the near future.

“In football,” Schweinsteiger answered, “everything is realistic.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11


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