Michael de Leeuw

Worst-case scenario: Michael de Leeuw out for season with ACL rupture

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USA TODAY

Worst-case scenario: Michael de Leeuw out for season with ACL rupture

The tone of Veljko Paunovic's voice in the postgame press conference told the story even if there was no word on a diagnosis. Michael de Leeuw's injury wasn't good.

What the Fire coach alluded to became official on Monday with the Fire saying that de Leeuw suffered a left ACL rupture. The Dutch forward suffered the injury in a collision in the 26th minute of Saturday's 1-1 draw against New York City FC.

He was going for a loose ball and his left leg didn't appear to be firmly planted, but the direct contact on his knee did enough damage to cause the injury. He immediately signaled for help as he lay on the field. De Leeuw was carried off the field by two trainers and didn't put any weight on his left leg.

The injury will cost him the rest of the 2017 season, including all of the playoffs, and will likely cost him the start of 2018 as well. De Leeuw's contract is guaranteed through 2018 and the Fire hold an option for 2019.

"The whole locker room is feeling that," Paunovic said. "It’s a bad situation for the team."

The injury is a big blow to the team in general for multiple reasons. For one, he leads the team with eight assists, including three in the past five matches. His work rate in the withdrawn forward/attacking midfield role has been key in pressing opposing midfields and he has shown a knack for setting up his teammates with impressive volley passes.

In addition, the player many of his teammates simply call "Lion" due to his last name meaning "the lion" in Dutch, is one of the more vocal players on the team. The 30-year-old has become one of the leaders on the team since joining last summer.

De Leeuw has scored 10 goals and been credited with 11 assists in 48 MLS matches for the Fire.

As the Fire prepare for the postseason, de Leeuw's absence complicates the Fire's preferred lineup and formation. He has played underneath striker Nemanja Nikolic, the leading goal-scorer in MLS, and fits in that position better than anyone else on the team. Luis Solignac has adapted well to playing in more of a wide role this season, but may be the most likely candidate to take de Leeuw's spot. Arturo Alvarez, who has started the last four matches, could then take Solignac's spot.

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

Why Fire's draw against New York City FC could be a sign of things to come

In the Fire’s resurgent 2017 season, the team earned its playoff berth on the back of a lot of dominant wins against bad or mediocre teams mixed in with some impressive wins against good teams from the Western Conference.

But one thing is missing: wins against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The field of six teams is all but set, with Columbus clinching on Saturday to join the Fire, Toronto, Atlanta and Saturday’s opponent, New York City FC. The New York Red Bulls are limping into the playoffs, but still have a firm grasp on the final playoff spot.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw against NYCFC, the Fire’s record against those five teams is now 2-6-3. Each of the five teams has at least one win against the Fire and top seed Toronto has two.

Those two wins have questionable value as well. The Fire beat Columbus came in April. The Crew made changes this summer and are currently on an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Fire also beat Atlanta when its two best players, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, came off the bench.

So with the MLS playoffs just under a month away, Saturday’s game was a chance to not only make up ground in the standings, but to prove the Fire can beat good teams in the East. The Fire hold an impressive 5-1-1 record against the eight teams jockeying for playoff spots in the Western Conference, but those teams aren’t in the Fire’s immediate playoff future.

“Obviously we don’t feel good about the tie,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We have two games more. We will build up the mood that will prepare the team now. We will first recover and we’ll look towards winning all six points. Obviously we know that’s easy and simple to say, but it’s not easy to do, but we are confident in our team.”

Paunovic opened his press conference on a somber note by speaking about Michael de Leeuw’s injury. The Dutch forward suffered a knee injury, was helped off the field by two trainers and was subbed off in the 30th minute. Paunovic said it “doesn’t look good,” but the team is awaiting MRI results to see the extent of the damage. If it is significant enough to keep him out of the playoffs, that would be a blow to the team.

The Fire remain in fourth place after Saturday’s games. Atlanta, which is in third-place with one more point and one more game remaining than the Fire, drew at New England. Columbus won to move within two points of the Fire for the final hosting spot in the first round, but the Crew’s final two games are on the road so the Fire appear likely to finish fourth.

[RELATED: See the latest standings and scenarios in the playoff tracker]

Despite having clinched, no one on the team was thinking about feeling relaxed with that accomplishment out of the way.

“It took a little bit of pressure off, but we’re still focusing on getting a top spot in the conference,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “Maybe second place, third place. That’s what we’re going for. There’s no letting off any bit.”

The Fire next play on Oct. 15 after MLS takes a break for international matches. Philadelphia comes to Toyota Park for the final regular season home match and the following Sunday the Fire play at Houston.

“I think we got to get back onto the game we did in San Jose,” forward Luis Solignac said of the team's 4-1 win on the road three days before. “It was a perfect example to build on. Be sharp with a killer instinct in the final third, take the chances and I think that’s our focus. Keep organized and keep our minds in the right way that it’s win these two games to get in the best shape to the playoffs.”

Fire clinch first playoff berth since 2012

Fire clinch first playoff berth since 2012

Just when things were looking dour for the Fire, the team delivered arguably its best road performance of the season and the reward was the club’s first playoff berth since 2012.

The Fire suffered an ugly loss in Philadelphia on Saturday and headed to San Jose without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and David Accam. On top of that, the day began with the two teams directly ahead of the Fire in the Eastern Conference standings, New York City FC and Atlanta, both picking up wins.

However, losses by Montreal and New England earlier on Wednesday meant the Fire could clinch a playoff berth with a win or draw at San Jose. The Earthquakes had lost just once at home, but the draw part of that equation was never necessary in a 4-1 Fire win.

“I feel really happy and proud. We achieved the playoffs,” Nemanja Nikolic said on the postgame interview on CSN. “It’s amazing, but we need to push like (we have) until now. We have more games and we want to be in the best position.”

It was the kind of performance that will give Fire fans confidence in the team again after the Fire struggled for much of the past three months. The damage of the recent slump is already done though with a top-two seed and a first-round bye remaining unlikely, even with the win.

However, Wednesday’s win also made a home game in that first-round increasingly likely. Fifth-place Columbus is four points behind the Fire with three games remaining and the Crew only has one more home game.

The Fire host New York City FC on Saturday. Both teams rested key players on Wednesday to prepare for that game. Accam didn’t travel with the team in an effort to keep him fresh for that big game. David Villa, NYCFC’s star forward, didn’t start in the team’s 1-0 win in Montreal. Villa played 29 minutes off the bench.

The Fire’s win in San Jose also had a few individually noteworthy moments:

  • Nemanja Nikolic scored two goals to bring his season total to 20, a new club record.

“I am really proud that I am a record-holder of this club,” Nikolic said. “This is my first year. 20 goals in my first year and three games more, it’s not bad. This pushes me to work harder.”

  • Djordje Mihailovic, an 18-year-old homegrown midfielder, scored his first career goal and had an assist. In the halftime interview on the broadcast, he said he was trying to play with no pressure.
  • Richard Sanchez, a goalkeeper the Fire acquired in August, made his first start for the team. He made eight saves before losing the shutout in the 87th minute.