Despite it being his sixth season in Chicago, defender Johan Kappelhof almost feels like a new addition at preseason camp.
After missing the majority of last year due to injury, the Fire’s longest-tenured player has been a welcome returner among the group and is fully recovered from the quad issues that plagued his 2020 season.
“I feel great,” he said. “I feel fresh. I've been working out the whole off-season. I feel good to go, and I'm available for the coach wherever he needs me, and I think I can contribute my experience, my qualities on the ball defensively.”
“I’m ready for the season, and I'm excited.”
Kappelhof made only four appearances for the Fire last season while dealing with the lingering effects of his injured leg.
He started and played 90 minutes in the opening two matches of the Fire’s season, and appeared to be on track for yet another sturdy year in central defense - the kind that had made him a linchpin of the unit for four seasons.
However, as COVID-19 took hold in the United States in mid-March and the regular season was suspended, Kappelhof picked up a quad injury while trying to maintain his fitness level from home. While both the Club and the league navigated the establishment of proper health and safety protocols, it was difficult for Kappelhof to get consistent treatment on his leg.
It was unknown at the time, but the slow, solo recovery and a pair of setbacks as regular season play resumed would essentially cost the 30-year-old the remainder of his season.
He made a brief return in October -- coming on as a substitute in the Fire’s 2-2 draw at Montreal on Oct. 3 and their 1-0 defeat at Kansas City on Oct. 7 -- but, it was clear that the quad wasn’t fully recovered. He didn't appear again for the Fire in 2020.
“To have this injury repeat itself a few times, it also (made me) question myself,” Kappelhof told ChicagoFireFC.com back in October as he prepared for those matches. “Some days you start to doubt, like, ‘Can I come back to 100 percent again? Why is it happening again?’ You question yourself. It was mentally tough, because I was close to coming back. I was back for a week, and then I re-injured again. That was a hard process to deal with.”
Equipped with a healthy quad and renewed perspective, Kappelhof has fully reset for 2021.
“I was injured last year, but I think every player starts at zero this year,” he said. “The past doesn't count. It starts from the preseason now, and everyone needs to prove themselves, and that's how it works in football. I'm just really looking forward to showing myself and earning my spot on the team.”
He’s not exactly starting from scratch, either. Although he was denied an opportunity to fully immerse himself in first-year head coach Raphael Wicky’s preferred system on the field last season, he picked up enough of it to be sure his skillset will complement the group.
“It fits my style of play,” he said. “He likes to have like good football, build it from the back where it's possible, and he likes energetic football, like runs without the ball and a lot of like energy. You have to put a lot of energy in your game. You have to press and be ready for duels. I think that fits my style of play.”
On top of that, among a roster in which 18 players have a year of experience in MLS or less, Kappelhof’s veteran wisdom will surely be appreciated.
“I’m the last guy left from like two, three years ago,” he said. “A lot of things have changed in the club…but of course I can help the new players with adjusting to the league, to the team, to the city, a lot of moving parts for the new players. A lot of new players are young, so yeah, I will be there for them to talk, and whenever they need something I'll be there and show my experience and help them wherever I can.”
A 2017 MLS All-Star and two-time Club Defensive Player of the Year is healthy and back in the mix, and he isn’t taking it for granted.
“This is for me a season to show myself again and to prove myself, show myself what I did in the past, to have a good year again, and I'm looking forward to it.”