How Michael de Leeuw almost joined the Fire in April

How Michael de Leeuw almost joined the Fire in April

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.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason


Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

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.