Michael de Leeuw

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

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USA TODAY

Fire's protected list for expansion draft hints at possible moves

The MLS offseason doesn't take long to get in gear.

The Fire traded Arturo Alvarez earlier on Sunday, the same day which the list of protected players was to be announced ahead of Tuesday's expansion draft for Los Angeles FC.

LAFC will take five players in the expansion draft, which is set for 1 p.m. on Tuesday. A team can only lose one player. Each team can protect 11 players and homegrown players aren't eligible for selection. For the Fire that means Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic can't be taken.

The Fire protected David Accam, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho, Matt Polster, Richard Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac and Brandon Vincent.

While Sanchez and Schweinsteiger are out of contract, the Fire have said they are negotiating with both players. Protecting Juninho is a bit of a surprise because it implies that the Fire have some intention of keeping him for next year, or at least keeping his rights to be traded.

The Fire left David Arshakyan, Jorge Bava, Brandt Bronico, Stefan Cleveland, Jorge Corrales, Michael de Leeuw, Christian Dean, Daniel Johnson and Matt Lampson unprotected. De Leeuw would be a worthwhile pickup for LA if it thinks he is worth it after his ACL tear suffered late in the season.

With only five players being selected it's fairly likely no Fire players are taken by LAFC, but it's arguable that de Leeuw will end up being one of the best five players available. The 31-year-old tied for the team lead with eight assists and scored three goals.

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

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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.”

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

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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.