Dutch defender Johan Kappelhof 'feels at home' with the Fire

One of the bright spots for the Chicago Fire this season has been Johan Kappelhof.

The Dutch defender, whose 26th birthday is Friday, joined the team in February from FC Groningen in his native country and quickly emerged as the Fire’s top defender. Kappelhof has played in every game this season and has played the full 90 minutes in all but one league game.

It hasn’t taken long for Kappelhof to feel comfortable with the Fire.

“I feel at home now in the club and also with my private life,” Kappelhof said. “I feel at home in the US and in Chicago. I feel good.”

Part of the reason for the easy transition has been his two fellow countrymen on the roster. John Goossens, who joined the team, initially on trial, soon after Kappelhof signed, and Michael de Leeuw, who joined the Fire in June and was a teammate of Kappelhof’s at Groningen, give the Fire a trio of Dutch players. After games, odds are you will see two or all three of the Dutch players walking out of the locker room and talking together. Goossens, Kappelhof and de Leeuw even spent the Fourth of July together with their families.

“It helps,” Kappelhof said. “If there’s something, you can always ask them. We have each other. Also, when the training time is over we have each other. We can help each other. That’s nice that they are there.”

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Kappelhof began playing at age six. He played with an amateur club for two years before joining the famous Ajax academy.

“I’m from Amsterdam so if you play for Ajax that’s a dream come true,” Kappelhof said. “I’m very happy that I’ve played there. It’s a very good youth academy.”

Ajax’s youth academy is one of the most well-respected in the world. Kappelhof played there for 13 years.

He played as a right winger before he joined Ajax. They moved him to defender.

“All the trainers had played professional football,” Kappelhof said of his youth coaches at Ajax. “They look at you and see your qualities and decide if you can be a defender or a midfielder or an attacker.”

Kappelhof adjusted to playing defender and took to the position. His explanation for why he likes playing defender is not exactly typical though.

“I like to have the ball,” Kappelhof said. “As a central defender, the buildup starts at the back. Mostly the central defenders get a lot of passes and I like that.”

Kappelhof has become a leader in the Fire’s defense because of his high-level experience, especially with a number of inexperienced players playing alongside him at times. He racked up over 120 appearances with Groningen in the Dutch Eredivisie, but admits he doesn’t talk much in the locker room and doesn’t have a typical leadership personality. Instead, Kappelhof is a lead-by-example type.

“We appreciate Johan’s leadership on the field where he actually gives a good example and boosts with his great attitude on the field,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “He is influencing all others, especially young players and young players playing next to him like Jonathan Campbell.”

Campbell is the Fire’s rookie center back who has earned a fairly consistent spot in the starting lineup. Campbell praised Kappelhof’s athleticism, but the bigger effect on Campbell has been how Kappelhof positions himself and reads the game.

“He is constantly on me in a good way,” Campbell said. “He’s getting me in better positions. He’s good at reading it, but he’s setting himself up in good positions so sometimes he’ll help me like ‘Hey, you need to be more tucked in. You need to be pushed up higher.’ Those type of things.”

The Fire are in last in Major League Soccer and the defense has allowed key goals late in games recently. Kappelhof said his own performance and the defense in general can both improve.

“I’m happy, but it can always be better,” he said. “I think I can do much better, as a defense and as a team we can do better, too.”