Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Michael de Leeuw's influential game and Vancouver's missed early chances

Notes from the rewatch: Michael de Leeuw's influential game and Vancouver's missed early chances

A lot of factors seemed to be going against the Chicago Fire when they faced Vancouver on Saturday, but it turned into another dominant home win.

The Fire were coming off a long game on turf midweek and were without two standout starters, David Accam and Dax McCarty. Despite that, Nemanja Nikolic returned to his goal-scoring ways and the Fire routed the Whitecaps.

Here’s a look at how Vancouver nearly changed the entire match with a pair of early chances, Michael de Leeuw’s big game and how the Fire have turned into a possession team.

Vancouver’s early chances

It didn’t take long for these plays to be forgotten considering what happened later in the first half, but Vancouver came close to taking an early lead twice in the opening 10 minutes.

A Cristian Techera free kick whizzed in front of goal without anyone connecting with it in just the second minute. In the sixth minute Christian Bolanos smacked a low shot from distance that beat Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson and slammed off the post.

These were early warning signs that the Fire may not be recovered from the long midweek game and loss in Cincinnati, but the game didn’t play out that way. Had the Whitecaps converted one of these early changes, things could have been very different.

Michael de Leeuw’s big game

The big story for the Dutch forward was that he finally scored on Saturday. Even without the goal, he once again was valuable in other ways.

He had a nice turn and through ball to Nikolic in the 11th minute, but Nikolic couldn’t control the ball. Seven minutes later the duo connected again and this time Nikolic finished. De Leeuw won a loose ball and gave it to Nikolic, who held off a defender and beat goalkeeper David Ousted.

The two forwards connected frequently on Saturday. De Leeuw nearly assisted Nikolic again to give him his hat trick in the 83rd minute, but Nikolic’s shot went inches wide of the post. When de Leeuw finally scored, it was Nikolic who gave him the assist as part of a give-and-go.

De Leeuw finished with four shots, three of which were on target. He admitted after the game that the one that wasn’t on target, an 80th minute effort where he cut onto his right foot and shanked a shot wide, should have been a goal.

Nikolic and de Leeuw showed good chemistry up top and if de Leeuw can start scoring now that he is on the board, this could be another way the Fire’s attack can hurt teams.

Fire control possession again

This isn’t specifically about Saturday’s match, but the Fire once again controlled possession. They did so without Dax McCarty playing in midfield and with Bastian Schweinsteiger getting subbed out late in the first half due to injury.

The Fire finished with 60.7 percent possession. It is the sixth time in the past eight matches that the Fire have had a majority of the possession.

The improvement in possession isn’t a surprise considering the additions of McCarty, Juninho and Schweinsteiger to central midfield, but considering how bad the Fire were in that area last year (dead last in the league averaging a 43 percent share of possession) it is still quite staggering. Vancouver is last in the league this year in possession so the Fire's dominance on Saturday lined up with what the teams have been doing lately.

Schweinsteiger highlight of the week

Finally, an obligatory gif of Schweinsteiger turning out of traffic with two players on him.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

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USA TODAY

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

Due to an early playoff exit, the players of the 2017 Chicago Fire have begun to disperse around the country to see family and friends back home during the offseason.

It’s not hard to make an argument that injuries played a significant part in the team’s playoff defeat. Michael de Leeuw went down on Sept. 30 with a torn ACL, Bastian Schweinsteiger played only 19 minutes in the last seven games of the season and Juninho wasn’t quite back to 100 percent when the playoffs rolled around. De Leeuw’s absence especially seemed to change the way the team played.

“Michael is loved by everyone in the locker room,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That’s off the field, but on the field he also put his best always. His quality, his mentality, character, leadership. He’s a winner, he wanted to win. That piece maybe we missed.”

More than five weeks after suffering the knee injury against New York City FC on Sept. 30, de Leeuw had his surgery on Thursday morning. Teenager Djordje Mihailovic suffered an ACL tear in the playoff loss nearly a full month after de Leeuw’s, but still had his surgery a week before the Dutchman.

“It was also my MCL,” de Leeuw said the day before his surgery. “It was a little bit sprained so that’s why they had to wait a little bit longer. Djordje only had his ACL, that’s why he already got surgery. When I saw he already got surgery I was like ‘S***, when is my turn? When can I go to the table?’ My knee is fine. It was a couple weeks longer, but it’s good now. It’s calm.”

De Leeuw said he was “a little bit” nervous going into the surgery because it was his first surgery. He had already been building his muscles, specifically quad strength, in advance of the procedure. The 31-year-old, who shared the team lead in assists with eight, will stay in Chicago for the rehab process.

He is under contract through 2018 with a club option for 2019. When asked about his long-term future, de Leeuw is confident he can return to 100 percent next season.

“I know my body,” he said. “I will be back for sure and I will be back stronger because I can do a lot of stuff in the gym now. That’s one thing I’m sure about. I will be back and I will be back stronger.

“I’m not done with the club and things I want to do here and accomplish here.”

[RELATED: Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason]

His, and Mihailovic’s, absence for the first part of 2018 will also have an impact on how the Fire approach this offseason. De Leeuw established himself as a regular starter and Mihailovic was starting to become a regular in the lineup towards the end of the year, especially after de Leeuw’s injury.

“We, for a while, had believed we had good depth, we had emerging talent on the attacking side,” general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “We could maybe disproportionately focus our attention in other areas, other lines of play, but we have to be realistic. They each could miss a large portion of the season so we have to reconsider our initial thoughts and revise our plan a little bit. For sure now, I think we’ll need to look to add some attacking piece because that’s a lot of minutes that we planned on that will need to be filled.”