VANCOUVER — Carl Robinson does not exactly have fond memories of playing against Bastian Schweinsteiger.
"He was probably the hardest player I've played against," said Robinson, a Welshman who now coaches the Vancouver Whitecaps. "Wales played against Germany. I started the game and came off after 56 minutes — and I was very happy to come off. That might tell you (about) my performance, or his."
On Saturday, Robinson's task will be to get his team to stop Schweinsteiger as the Whitecaps (6-6-3) visit the red-hot Chicago Fire (10-3-4) in Major League Soccer play. Enjoying a career renaissance after struggling at Manchester United, Schweinsteiger, a former World Cup star, has helped the Fire surge up the standings to second place overall after finishing last in the past two seasons.
"You have to respect the top players in the league and (Schweinsteiger) is certainly one of them," Robinson said after a practice this week at UBC. "He's a top player because he does the simple things. He's a very smart player and his quality is second to none. He does the right things every time."
Schweinsteiger has helped the Fire go unbeaten at home (8-0-1) this season. He has proved to be an ideal playmaker for Polish striker Nemanja Nikolic, who has scored 14 goals in 17 games.
The Whitecaps will have to beat Chicago with a short-handed squad after four players — 16-year-old prodigy Alphonso Davies, Russell Teibert, Marcel de Jong and Sam Adekugbe — were called to play for Canada at the Gold Cup in the U.S.
The Whitecaps also have several injured players, including central defender Kendall Waston, midfielders Nicolas Mezquida (ankle) and Christian Bolanos (shoulder), and striker Erik Hurtado. All four made the trip but Robinson said Bolanos is considered a week or two away from returning, and most of the others are expected to sit.
Robinson called the situation a "huge" challenge, but vowed that the Whitecaps will be ready for a Fire club that has outscored opponents 31-17. He is looking for a better defensive effort from the Whitecaps after they squandered a 2-0 lead in a draw in Minnesota last weekend.
"There's not many away teams that dominate possession in this league, so they'll probably have more possession than us," said Robinson. "But it's important that we concentrate and not give stupid fouls or silly goals away, which we did (last) weekend. We've given key goals away at the wrong times."
The Whitecaps, who are 2-1-1 in their past four road games, could get some offensive help from 23-year-old Peruvian international midfielder/striker Yordy Reyna, who is slated to suit up for his first regular-season game, albeit in a reserve role, after recovering from surgery on a fracture foot suffered in the pre-season.
"It's been really tough these past few months with the pain and the desire to play," said Reyna, who scored 14 goals while playing in Austria the past three seasons. "But, thankfully, that time has passed now and I'm ready to get on the field."
"We're delighted to have him back," said Robinson. "He's a good player. It's like a new signing for us."
Meanwhile, the Fire will also be missing some key regulars. Midfielder Dax McCarty is away with the U.S. team for the Gold Cup and midfielder David Accam, who scored three goals in a win over Orlando last weekend, has joined Ghana for friendlies against Mexico and the Americans.
But the Whitecaps are still wary of Chicago's formidable offence. Vancouver goalkeeper David Ousted wants his team to "sharpen up a little bit defensively" and be stronger on the ball after untimely breakdowns in Minnesota. But he is confident that his understaffed side can still put in a good performance.
"When people are away, there are other guys getting the chance," said Ousted. "We talk about the depth of the squad and the quality we have in the guys outside the (starting) 11, and that'll be showing on the weekend."
Consequently, he is optimistic about the Caps' chances of handing Chicago its first home loss.
"There's a first time for everything, isn't there?" asked Ousted with a smile.