Chicago 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.”

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.

Amid Serbia rumors, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic says he hasn't had contact with Serbian federation

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USA TODAY

Amid Serbia rumors, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic says he hasn't had contact with Serbian federation

When Veljko Paunovic was hired as head coach of the Fire in Nov. 2015, he was hailed as a key piece in the club’s rebuilding process.

After enduring another losing season in 2016, that rebuild became a realization with a strong regular season in 2017 that resulted in a home playoff game. Now a potential dream type job for Paunovic, manager of the Serbian national team, has opened up. For now, he’s saying nothing will come of it.

“I haven’t met with anyone,” Paunovic said at a press conference on Wednesday. “I haven’t talked to anyone from the Serbian federation. I did go to Serbia for a different purpose, a professional scouting trip and to see my family, but I also went to Europe, other countries, to do more scouting and that’s all I can say. What I can also say is that I’m very happy and when we came here we said that we are in the process, we are going to do, we are going to build a championship program. I’m very happy with the progress we had.”

Paunovic was joined by general manager Nelson Rodriguez in what was scheduled as a year-end wrap up press conference. Once the Serbia job opened up, Paunovic’s name popped up as a natural candidate. Rodriguez also said he hasn’t had any contact with anyone from Serbia about Paunovic, who is under contract with the Fire for one more year.

Slavoljub Muslin led Serbia through qualifying to earn a spot in the 2018 Russia World Cup, but he and the federation separated after qualifying concluded.

''We parted ways because we don't think alike on how the team should look for the World Cup in Russia,'' Muslin was quoted by Serbian media, according to an AP report.

Speculation around Paunovic came from the fact that he won the 2015 Under-20 World Cup with Serbia. That run included a win against the U.S. in the quarterfinals and assistant coaches Marko Mitrovic and Aleksandar Saric followed Paunovic to the Fire’s staff.

Paunovic was asked if the Serbia job is something he has as an ambition at some point in his career.

“I’m always focused on what I’m doing now,” Paunovic said. “My purpose when we came here was to build a team that will be a championship team, that will win championships and that will resonate in soccer in the United States, with the style, the mentality, everything. I focus all my energy and my mind, only on that. I think I still have a lot of things to do here and I’m looking ahead to next season as a great opportunity for all of us to improve, for me too as a coach, and to fulfill my personal goal, but the same goal that we all together share which is to have Chicago Fire being one of the best teams, or the best team in the United States.”