After playing his first game for the Chicago Fire in a month, Designated Player Xherdan Shaqiri made an impact all over the pitch in the team’s massive 1-0 win over the first place Philadelphia Union on Wednesday.
After the match, Shaqiri didn’t mince words about what he means to the Fire. He’s not normally this boastful, but this answer felt Zlatan-esque.
“I am the leader of this team, and if I’m on the pitch, the team is a bit different,” Shaqiri told CHGO’s Alex Campbell. “Of course, I try to help with my football skills, but also with the leadership, to grow, because we have a lot of young players who need to learn.”
Playing in a central No. 10 role, Shaqiri led the team in touches (89), completed passes in the final third (20), and crosses attempted (9). He also made seven recoveries, and was second on the team with 46 completed passes (next to Gastón Giménez’s 55). Shaqiri didn’t score the game’s lone goal—that honor went to Federico Navarro—but his presence and work helped the Fire pick up a vital win, moving the team out of the basement in the Eastern Conference.
“With that ball, he’s just amazing, he finds passes, he unlocks defenses,” Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson said of his star DP. “And now, we’ve just got to finish some of these opportunities that he’s putting guys in one-v-one.
“We’re not a team that’s going to kick it long and chase after it,” Hendrickson continued. “That’s not our style. We like to keep the ball, and you see what happens when Shaq is on the pitch, guys. It helps us play our game. The premise of our game is to play in the front half, pin the opponents back by being relentless in our possession. And that’s something we thrive on. But when you don’t have your maestro, so to speak, Shaq, on the pitch, then it becomes difficult because he’s just so good of a player.”
While Shaqiri’s talent has never really been in doubt, his durability has been a problem for the Fire this season. His first stint with Switzerland earlier in the season resulted in a calf injury that caused him to miss two matches, and saw his minutes limited in others. On his second international stint, he picked up a hamstring injury that kept him out of the 1-0 win over D.C. United. Then, he missed the following match, a dismal 2-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo, this time with nausea.
Hendrickson has said week after week some variation of “we don’t want to risk it” with Shaqiri’s various ailments, which is understandable to a point. But with the Fire needing every point possible to keep any playoff hopes alive, it’s probably time for Hendrickson to start pushing things a little more with his star midfielder—who, at $8.15 million this season, was listed as MLS’s top-paid player in the annual MLS Players’ Association salary postings (although he’s likely been passed up by Toronto FC’s Lorenzo Insigne).
Shaqiri’s absences have been immensely frustrating for Fire fans who just want to see the team win, especially when we’ve only started to see his full potential. Those who know him well insist Shaqiri’s not here for an end-of-career MLS vacation, and instead is fiercely competitive and willing to do what it takes to win. If he remains healthy for the remainder of the season, and the Fire can take advantage this upcoming stretch of weak opponents (next up: Francisco Calvo’s 14th place San Jose Earthquakes host the Fire on Sunday), then maybe, just maybe, the Fire can creep back into the playoff picture.
“I want to be successful, too, with this team,” Shaqiri told CHGO. “With that, we need performances. I try to push them too every day in training and the game. We need to change a bit, the old football they had. We need to control more of the game, more playful football, more creative football, and that’s what I want.
“We are not in a bad way. We are in a good way to do that. You can see that today that we play more football, quicker football, one-two touch, players doing better positions, but, still, we need to learn a lot, but today was a good step forward, and that was important.”
Patrick’s CHGO Fire Podcast co-host, Alex Campbell, contributed to this report.
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