Fire

Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

This season, Michael de Leeuw had been forced to earn credit for doing the dirty work because he didn’t have any goals to show for his play.

On Saturday that finally changed. The Chicago Fire forward scored his first goal of the season in a 4-0 win against Vancouver to end a drought that lasted through the first half of the regular season.

“Finally, you know?” de Leeuw said. “The monkey is finally off my back, but I think it was an elephant. I’m happy with my goal, but also with the points. It’s for me also good that I scored, but I think the most important thing was that we killed the game really soon.”

De Leeuw’s goal was the fourth in a comprehensive win. The Fire now have the best record in Major League Soccer following Toronto’s 3-1 loss at Dallas.

De Leeuw scored seven goals in 18 games last year on a bad Fire team, but moved to a different role this year to accommodate the league’s leading scorer, Nemanja Nikolic. He maintained a regular spot in the lineup due to his work rate and ability to have a positive influence on the game without scoring.

“So happy for him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We were talking about that for a long time now, how important his work for the team and how important his assists are for the team.”

De Leeuw, who was named the man of the match, assisted Nemanja Nikolic for the second goal of the match. That was de Leeuw’s fifth assist of the season.

In the second half, he had a pair of golden opportunities where it seemed certain that he would score. De Leeuw chipped goalkeeper David Ousted after an errant clearance, but a defender headed the ball off the line. Later, he missed an open shot in the box.

“I had some chances,” de Leeuw said. “One ball was headed out of the line. Also one chance that has to be a goal.

“I was feeling it today. Then at the end it’s good that you score a goal. Sometimes you just need that goal to open your tab, open your account and let’s hope that it keeps flowing now.”

Finally, de Leeuw scored on a give-and-go with Nikolic in the 84th minute. He took the shot with his first touch and slid it past Ousted.

He was mobbed by his teammates, who were clearly aware of de Leeuw finally getting a goal.

“That felt great, the support” he said. “I felt the guys were also feeling it, that I needed a goal. I felt the love from the guys and that’s great.”

Everything feels good when a team is winning, but this one had a little extra meaning to de Leeuw and his teammates.

“I think we’re all excited,” defender Matt Polster said. “He’s been working really hard. We need everyone scoring.”

As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

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As Fire's offseason activity picks up, GM Nelson Rodriguez says more improvement is needed

General manager Nelson Rodriguez has taken his time this offseason, but things have been picked up in the past week and will continue to do so with the draft taking place on Friday.

Rodriguez spoke with reporters on a conference call a day after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s return became official and just hours after Jorge Bava’s exit and the Cam Lindley trade were announced as expected. Those topics and plenty more were discussed serving as a state of the team with offseason activity ramping up.

First off, the big news remains Schweinsteiger’s return. Rodriguez would not disclose the German’s salary, but did say that there is no option for a second year on the contract. The two sides would have to renegotiate just like they did this winter for him to return in 2019.

“Both parties were keenly interested in continuing the relationship so I think that made things a lot easier,” Rodriguez said. “There are always some little details that need to be worked out and I think that’s what prolonged the discussions, but I believe both parties felt reasonably confident that we would continue together.”

Elsewhere, the finalization of the Lindley trade allowed Rodriguez to discuss some of the details of the breakdown in negotiations with the homegrown prospect. The Fire sent the rights to Lindley to Orlando for Rafa Ramos and $100,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (broken down as $50,000 in both 2018 and 2019). Lindley signed a four-year contract with Orlando.

The Fire approached Lindley last winter, but he returned to North Carolina for his sophomore season.

“When we spoke this year, Cameron indicated that he would prefer to start his career outside of Chicago and so we were able to fulfill that wish for him, but in the process we thought we did very well for ourselves in acquiring a very talented, young player with professional experience and then on top of that getting allocation money, which can serve us,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s an instance where it’s a win-win for Orlando and for us.”

Ramos, 23, will likely be the backup to both Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent. Lindley is a 20-year-old central midfielder who could have provided depth behind Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty this year.

When asked why Lindley didn’t want to sign with the Fire, Rodriguez said he didn’t ask Lindley.

“I’m only concerned with players who are in our locker room and want to play for us,” Rodriguez said.

Bava’s exit was under different circumstances. The 36-year-old goalkeeper expressed a desire to return to his home country of Uruguay, which he was able to do by landing with Liverpool FC Montevideo. The Fire and Bava mutually agreed to terminate his contract.

“He came to us and let us know that he had a playing opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “I think the second part of it is that we indicated to Jorge that we were very comfortable with Matt (Lampson) and Richard (Sanchez) and that it was going to be difficult for him to unseat one or both of those guys.”

Those moves put the Fire’s roster at 21 heading into Friday’s draft. The first two rounds will take place in Philadelphia starting at 10 a.m. The Fire have the 15th and 38th picks.

Rodriguez said the Fire’s draft is very different this year after having the top pick in 2016 and the third pick in 2017. The Fire traded both of those picks.

“With the first pick and the third pick, teams generally come to you,” Rodriguez said. “My experience is that there are several teams going for the clubs that hold those top three spots now so it’s almost flipped in that if we want to be active, no one is looking to move up to 15.

“I wouldn’t discount our making a trade because we have had conversations, admittedly all with teams ahead of us in the draft, no one below us in the draft. But some of that may be dependant upon how the draft actually goes. Usually you lock in on one or two players, you don’t want to necessarily trade up without knowing either or both of those players might be available. It might be a situation that occurs during the draft as opposed to prior to the draft.”

As for other potential additions, Rodriguez didn’t say much. He wouldn’t comment on the continuing Juan Quintero rumors and reports. The news is seemingly going in both directions on that front.

Rodriguez did comment on a potential return for Juninho, the Brazilian midfielder who was on loan with the Fire last season. Mexican club Tijuana holds his rights after the loan expired.

“We told Juni and his agent that we were not going to offer a transfer to acquire his services, but if he could extricate himself from that contract, we would be interested in having him return to the club,” Rodriguez said.

When asked what he believes the roster still needs, Rodriguez said “across all our lines,” even mentioning goalkeeper as part of that. At this point most additions will be for depth, but Rodriguez mentioned the need to replace midfielder Djordje Mihailovic and forward Michael de Leeuw, both of which suffered torn ACLs last in the 2017 season. Rodriguez said they are hoping for those players to return from injury in July or August, but obviously things can change as they continue to rehab.

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

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With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

Due to a calf injury, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived at the training field later than the rest of his Fire teammates on a Tuesday in September. He sat down on a bench by himself and started singing a song in a foreign language.

It turned out to be a Serbian folk song he learned thanks to his wife, Serbian former tennis pro Anna Ivanovic.

During games Schweinsteiger is ultra competitive and always very serious. During practice and off the field, he is a bit of a goofball. Always cracking jokes and keeping things loose.

“I think that helps a lot because you see how he is on the field, he’s very serious, and he expects a lot of himself and of his teammates, but then off the field he’s very easy going,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said.

Schweinsteiger's return via a one-year deal was announced on Wednesday via reports from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and German outlet Bild. It's obviously a big deal for on-field reasons after Schweinsteiger helped revitalize the franchise in 2017. He also brings plenty of attention to the club in the form of fans from around the world and more media coverage of him and, by proxy, the team. However, his value goes beyond even that in a way that not everyone gets to see.

On the day he sang the Serbian folk song, Sept. 12, Schweinsteiger had missed the previous match due to the injury and was kept away from the training field that week. Even if he only stretched and jogged on that Tuesday, Schweinsteiger still seemed excited to return to the field.

He wasn’t able to play with his teammates so he turned to the few spectators, a few Fire staffers and myself, for his entertainment while he stretched in anticipation of his run. He asked each person their second favorite club team, the implication being the Fire would be the favorite team. Schweinsteiger said his was Partizan Belgrade “for family reasons,” another nod to Ivanovic.

“He’s got a really easy going, goofy demeanor about him,” McCarty said. “That helps the guys and that helps him relate to the guys.”

If Schweinsteiger isn’t the team’s class clown, it would be Matt Lampson. The goalkeeper is willing to make a joke out of just about anything. The two even sparred on an occasion after a training session.

In May, Lampson was being interviewed by two reporters and had his back to the training field. Schweinsteiger decided to kick balls at Lampson to distract him and hit him in the calf on the second try from about 20 yards away. As Lampson turned to see what happened, Schweinsteiger growled as a show of pride in his accomplishment.

Naturally, when it was Schweinsteiger’s turn to be interviewed, Lampson got even. He hit Schweinsteiger with a ball and the German stopped, yelled “Matt Lampson!” (sidenote: hearing Schweinsteiger’s German accent exclaim an Anglo name was very amusing) and then proceeded to blame Lampson in jest to the reporters for giving up two goals in the previous game.

“He certainly likes to have a good time and it’s nice that he doesn’t take himself too seriously because when you have a guy that’s won everything in the world of soccer it would be easy for him to be a prick,” Lampson said. “But he’s awesome. Not only when it comes to the locker room, but also just in terms of me learning from him. The time that he takes to teach and provide me with knowledge and the rest of the guys with knowledge is pretty remarkable of him because he doesn’t have to do that. He wants to win and he wants to help everybody else. He wants to help us become better players.”

As for who’s the team’s class clown?

“He’s a clown,” Lampson said. “I’ll let him have the title.”

Schweinsteiger has shown his willingness to be loose with the media as well, even though he did on one occasion after a loss decline to talk to reporters. He will give a thoughtful answer, but isn’t afraid to make fun of a question or joke with reporter.

As an in-season addition, his locker is at the end of the Fire locker room inside Toyota Park. Last season, his was next to Joao Meira. After one game Schweinsteiger, who is typically one of the first out of the shower, already had a crowd of reporters around him. The semi-circle crowd around Schweinsteiger meant Meira, who was in only his towel and shower sandals, couldn’t get to his locker. Schweinsteiger laughed and pointed to Meira’s locker and says, “Here’s your seat, Joao.”

It’s not all just laughs with Schweinsteiger. Another locker room occurence that stood out was when he decided to take control over reporter etiquette.

After Schweinsteiger’s first few matches with the Fire, the crowd of reporters was especially large. A woman reporter asked a question, but got talked over by another reporter. Schweinsteiger stopped and said “No, she was asking.” The woman laughed it off, called Schweinsteiger a gentleman, and then asked her question.

Schweinsteiger has also had some positive interactions with the women of the Chicago Red Stars. The Red Stars use the same training field as the Fire and take the field after the Fire leave so there is often some overlap for Fire players who stay a bit late or are slow to leave the field.

In June, Schweinsteiger stayed late after practice and the Red Stars had already started warming up. He decided to start playing with the Red Stars, kicking back and forth with Stephanie McCaffrey.

He would talk to some of the other players and stayed to watch the Red Stars practice, seemingly mesmerized by it. Later in the season, he was wearing a Red Stars jacket while signing a series of autographs for team giveaways.

Schweinsteiger’s presence will always be a big deal on the field and from a marketing perspective, but his personality with the team has shown on several occasions to also be valuable to the Fire.

“It helps, just charisma in the locker room and everywhere, it’s very helpful and it helps the other guys to be in a good mood just to feed from that energy that is coming from him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “It gives the team a default mood, a positive mood, everyday and that’s what you need to work. That’s what you need to live together and spend time together.”

Schweinsteiger is back for 2018. Let’s see what kind of amusing interactions he will provide this year.