On Sunday, Jan. 27, amid a nondescript team breakfast in Madrid, a sudden round of applause broke out.
Johan Kappelhof -- the Club’s longest-tenured current player -- had arrived in Madrid to begin preseason preparations for the 2019 season after signing a new three-year contract on Jan. 26.
The 28-year-old was re-inserted into head coach Veljko Paunović’s central defense immediately as the Club’s full calendar of two-a-day sessions shifted from Spain to Charleston, S.C., ahead of its participation in the 2019 Carolina Challenge Cup.
“Preseason has been good to me up to now,” he said. “No injuries, no serious soreness. Mentally, of course you have to prepare for a long season, but it’s going well.”
After originally signing with the Fire in February of 2016, Kappelhof enters the Club’s 2019 campaign as the most senior member of the Fire roster. Having started 93 (and appeared in 95) of a possible 102 regular season matches since entering the league, the Amsterdam native is leaning on his experience to help boost the Fire defensive unit.
“Automatically, if you’re the longest guy here, you know the club,” he said. “I know the coach and how he wants to play. I have to help the guys around me and be a leader at the back.”
“I remember three years ago,” he recalled, citing his first preseason camp with the Fire in 2016. “Everything was totally new for me. All the players on the team -- we had a lot of trialists and everybody was new -- I didn’t know who was really on the team. Now of course I know everyone and everyone knows me.”
Kappelhof’s familiarity with both Paunović’s preferred style of play defensively as well as with the league itself is an asset to the Fire defense as it continues to gel ahead of the team’s March 2 season opener on the road at the LA Galaxy (7 p.m. CT, FS1).
Central defender Marcelo was signed from Portuguese side Sporting CP in December after eight seasons in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, and his successful adjustment to his new surroundings alongside Kappelhof and Grant Lillard will be crucial to the team’s success.
“With Marcelo, we have to get to know each other,” Kappelhof said. “We’re working on that. We have almost a completely new back line, so it always takes time. It brings responsibility with me. I’m willing to accept that and help the guys around me.”
In addition, players like Raheem Edwards, Nicolas Hasler, and Diego Campos have seen their defensive responsibilities increase since joining the team in 2018, and -- alongside Kappelhof -- are working to become stronger as a unit in the remaining weeks of camp.
“We have to get used to each other and make it automatic, everything. That’s what preseason is for, to work on that.”
Part of that preseason effort is continuing to improve his own game. After 2017 saw Kappelhof earn his first MLS All-Star selection and help guide the team to the postseason, he (along with the rest of the squad) endured a challenging 2018 campaign that left the Club outside of the playoffs and the Dutch defender looking to reach yet another level personally.
“I still think that I haven’t reached my limit yet, so I’m hungry to find out where my limit is,” he said. “For that reason, you have to be sharp every session, every game, to be focused all year.”
Two preseason matches now remain between and the Fire’s March 2 date with the Galaxy. After drawing Columbus Crew SC 1-1 on Saturday in the 2019 Carolina Challenge Cup opener, Kappelhof and the Fire will take on MLS newcomer FC Cincinnati on Wednesday, Feb. 20 (6:30 p.m. CT) and tournament hosts Charleston Battery on Saturday, Feb. 23 (6:30 p.m. CT) before returning to the Windy City.
Everything is on the table for the Fire at this point, and Kappelhof’s intentions for his upcoming fourth season in MLS are clear.
“It’s important for us to reach the playoffs,” he said. “That’s our main goal this year. We need to achieve that.”