Fire

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.”

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.

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

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USA TODAY

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

It was locker clean out day for the Fire and while there was definitely a last day of school feel in the locker room, a number of the players left Toyota Park on Wednesday not knowing their immediate futures.

Just seven of the 30 players that finished 2017 on the roster have guaranteed contracts for 2018: Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean, Jorge Corrales, David Accam, Michael de Leeuw, Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac. A healthy number more can safely head into the winter knowing they will have their team options picked up (Dax McCarty, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster to name a few), but plenty more face uncertainty.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said the front office is “still discussing” which players will be brought back and which won’t. Rodriguez added that he is about halfway through exit interviews with the players and expects to finish them by the end of the week.

“The rules allow us to not to have to make that decision until late November, early December, the first day of December, so we won’t,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll take our time in doing that and we’ll explore internal options and options that may present themselves from the international market.”

The big question mark is German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 33-year-old is out of contract and is currently in Serbia with his Serbian wife, Ana Ivanovic.

“Our conversations I would characterize are going very well, very positively,” Rodriguez said. “We remain optimistic that Basti and we will reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

“I won’t put a timeline on it. I think Basti has proven his importance to our club and to our team and that remains a priority to bring him back.”

Along with Schweinsteiger, center back Joao Meira is the only other player not already guaranteed for 2018 that the Fire do not hold an option on.

Rodriguez admitted injuries will also play a part in the decision process. Accam had surgery to repair two hernias in his hip on Tuesday and is expected to be fully healthy by December, but de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic will miss a significant chunk of the 2018 season. Mihailovic already had his ACL surgery while de Leeuw's ACL surgery is scheduled for Thursday morning. The absence of those two players, who figured to be regulars next season, for what could be around half of the season alters Rodriguez's plan for 2018.

After a much-improved regular season, which saw the Fire finish with the third best record in the league, was followed up by a one-and-done playoff exit, the key this winter will be how much things should change.

“The arc of this offseason will be that delicate balance,” Rodriguez said. “We know we need to improve. We know we like our core, but change is inevitable. You can’t have both. We can’t fully retain this group and add pieces.”

While coach Veljko Paunovic, who denied any connection to the open Serbia national team job at the start of the press conference, has already been on a scouting trip and has others planned in Europe and South America, he said his first choice is to have the current players come back improved for next season.

“The guys that we decide to come back, they have to come back better than they left,” Paunovic said before calling adding other players Plan B.

So while there are only hints to go on for now, the first dominoes of the Fire’s offseason will take place in about three weeks time.