Dutch defender Johan Kappelhof 'feels at home' with the Fire

Dutch defender Johan Kappelhof 'feels at home' with the Fire

One of the bright spots for the Chicago Fire this season has been Johan Kappelhof.

The Dutch defender, whose 26th birthday is Friday, joined the team in February from FC Groningen in his native country and quickly emerged as the Fire’s top defender. Kappelhof has played in every game this season and has played the full 90 minutes in all but one league game.

It hasn’t taken long for Kappelhof to feel comfortable with the Fire.

“I feel at home now in the club and also with my private life,” Kappelhof said. “I feel at home in the US and in Chicago. I feel good.”

Part of the reason for the easy transition has been his two fellow countrymen on the roster. John Goossens, who joined the team, initially on trial, soon after Kappelhof signed, and Michael de Leeuw, who joined the Fire in June and was a teammate of Kappelhof’s at Groningen, give the Fire a trio of Dutch players. After games, odds are you will see two or all three of the Dutch players walking out of the locker room and talking together. Goossens, Kappelhof and de Leeuw even spent the Fourth of July together with their families.

“It helps,” Kappelhof said. “If there’s something, you can always ask them. We have each other. Also, when the training time is over we have each other. We can help each other. That’s nice that they are there.”

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Kappelhof began playing at age six. He played with an amateur club for two years before joining the famous Ajax academy.

“I’m from Amsterdam so if you play for Ajax that’s a dream come true,” Kappelhof said. “I’m very happy that I’ve played there. It’s a very good youth academy.”

Ajax’s youth academy is one of the most well-respected in the world. Kappelhof played there for 13 years.

He played as a right winger before he joined Ajax. They moved him to defender.

“All the trainers had played professional football,” Kappelhof said of his youth coaches at Ajax. “They look at you and see your qualities and decide if you can be a defender or a midfielder or an attacker.”

Kappelhof adjusted to playing defender and took to the position. His explanation for why he likes playing defender is not exactly typical though.

“I like to have the ball,” Kappelhof said. “As a central defender, the buildup starts at the back. Mostly the central defenders get a lot of passes and I like that.”

Kappelhof has become a leader in the Fire’s defense because of his high-level experience, especially with a number of inexperienced players playing alongside him at times. He racked up over 120 appearances with Groningen in the Dutch Eredivisie, but admits he doesn’t talk much in the locker room and doesn’t have a typical leadership personality. Instead, Kappelhof is a lead-by-example type.

“We appreciate Johan’s leadership on the field where he actually gives a good example and boosts with his great attitude on the field,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “He is influencing all others, especially young players and young players playing next to him like Jonathan Campbell.”

Campbell is the Fire’s rookie center back who has earned a fairly consistent spot in the starting lineup. Campbell praised Kappelhof’s athleticism, but the bigger effect on Campbell has been how Kappelhof positions himself and reads the game.

“He is constantly on me in a good way,” Campbell said. “He’s getting me in better positions. He’s good at reading it, but he’s setting himself up in good positions so sometimes he’ll help me like ‘Hey, you need to be more tucked in. You need to be pushed up higher.’ Those type of things.”

The Fire are in last in Major League Soccer and the defense has allowed key goals late in games recently. Kappelhof said his own performance and the defense in general can both improve.

“I’m happy, but it can always be better,” he said. “I think I can do much better, as a defense and as a team we can do better, too.”

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away


Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason


Fire notes: Bastian Schweinsteiger yet to play in preseason

The Fire's preseason is two games old, but not much action has taken place in those games.

The opener was a 2-0 win against the University of South Florida, the Fire's host during this phase of the preseason, and Thursday's match against the Philadelphia Union was a scoreless draw. It's still early in the preseason and it has looked like it, but there have been some notable things.

For one, Bastian Schweinsteiger hasn't played yet. According to a team source the plan was for the German to sit out these two games. The 33-year-old did show some signs of a relative lack of fitness during scrimmages at the newly-build Toyota Park Dome (he had his hands firmly on his knees after one session despite still showing quality on the ball). The season opener is still over a month away so it's not a red flag.

Newly added winger Aleksandar Katai hasn't joined the team yet, but is expected to do so for the next phase of the preseason. Thursday is the team's travel day for a return to Chicago. The team has the weekend off before returning to Florida, this time in Bradenton, on Sunday.

Katai last played on Oct. 24 so he may need some time to get up to full speed, but so does the rest of the team at this time of year. How he is used will be worth watching. Will he be a straight replacement for David Accam (at least in terms of position) or will he be a more versatile option? Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Jon Bakero have played in the attacking midfield spots with the starting group in both preseason matches.

Defensively, it appears Christian Dean may have the inside track on the starting spot next to Johan Kappelhof. Dean has started next to Kappelhof in both preseason matches and did so in scrimmages in Bridgeview in the first week of the preseason. If that continues, Dean is likely the starter. If coach Veljko Paunovic wants to see someone else play with Kappelhof later in the preseason, there is still an open competition. Dean and rookie Grant Lillard are both left-footed center backs vying for the left center back spot.

Rookie Mo Adams started against USF and was in the second half lineup against Philadelphia. Against the Union, Adams dropped deep to begin attacks as the Fire tried to build out of the back. That trait is not common in young MLS players and is a good sign for Adams' prospects. He won't beat out Schweinsteiger or McCarty, but he could be a valuable bench piece this season, especially with Juninho gone from last year's team, and more in the future.

The recently traded Accam started for Philadelphia and played into the second half, but wasn't a major factor. To be fair, in a scoreless preseason draw few players were major factors. Of the 11 players the Fire started the second half with, Accam only played in a match with one of them (Jonathan Campbell) during his time with the team. The Fire's second half lineup was largely comprised of rookies, trialists and even an academy player.

Finally, Dax McCarty is always good for a good line. After the Philadelphia match, McCarty shared an idea he has for the league.