At the beginning of the season the Chicago Fire’s revamped defense received much of the attention.
After the Fire lost 4-3 to New York City FC, that didn’t change. However, general manager Nelson Rodriguez saw it differently.
“The very first game of the year, the story was the defense,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody wanted to blame the defense. Honestly, for me, it was the offense that failed us in the first game of the year. We should have scored six or seven. It wasn’t about the four we gave up. It’s about the four we didn’t score that we should have scored.”
With that in mind, Rodriguez searched for additions he could make up front. Eventually he targeted Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw, who recently signed with the Fire and is set to debut in July.
However, Rodriguez wanted de Leeuw sooner than that and it almost happened.
“We had made a significant transfer offer back in April, perhaps even late March, I’d have to check the date, for his services,” Rodriguez said. “His club, FC Groningen, believed he was too key of a player for them. They had just lost Johan (Kappelhof) to us and didn’t want to lose a key player both from the backline and the frontline.”
Once Groningen turned down the transfer offer the Fire had to wait until the end of the season, when de Leeuw’s contract expired. Groningen’s season was set to end on May 8 while the Major League Soccer transfer window closed on May 11.
A potential snag was that Groningen was still in the race for the Europa League playoffs, contested by the fifth-eighth place teams in the Eredivisie. Those matches were scheduled after the MLS transfer window would close and Groningen wasn’t willing to part with its leading scorer with key matches still ahead.
At the time of the Fire’s rejected transfer offer Groningen was in 10th place in the Eredivisie. Groningen then went 5-0-1 from April to the end of the season. de Leeuw started four of those matches and scored a goal. Groningen moved into seventh place, but didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the last match of the season.
The MLS transfer window came and went and de Leeuw was still a Groningen player.
“We targeted to have Michael… May 10 because the season ended May 8 and we were going to let him have a day to salute the fans and come here,” Rodriguez said. “We gave him the path and it didn’t happen.”
In the playoffs, de Leeuw sat out Groningen’s 2-1 home win against Heracles due to injury, but came off the bench in the second leg. Amazingly, Groningen was up 3-1 on aggregate goals before Heracles scored in the 83rd and 92nd minutes to force extra time, where Heracles scored three more times to advance.
When Rodriguez explained the club’s pursuit of de Leeuw to owner Andrew Hauptman, Hauptman asked if there were alternatives to de Leeuw that the team could bring in sooner.
“We think Michael’s complete mix as a person and as a player were the right ones for us and so rather than try to fix something we want to build something,” Rodriguez said. “So we remained patient with Michael and he remained patient with us.”
The Fire announced the signing of de Leeuw on May 17. His contract is signed and the visa process is already underway so as of now he is expected to debut July 9 in Toronto. In the meantime he is expected to join the Fire for training in early June.
“We’ve already been in touch with him, we’ve already been discussing a recovery plan for him as well as the beginnings of a new fitness plan so that when he does join us and begins training with the club, he’ll be ready to step on the field in early July,” Rodriguez said. “We expect and are looking for him to provide goals.”