The pair -- out with injuries -- were forced to stay behind while the rest of their teammates participated in the recently completed MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.
“You feel like there’s something wrong,” Azira said. “You’re supposed to be with the team, but you’re not there.”
That feeling has made their respective presences at training all the more welcome amid the Fire’s return to Chicago and their on-going preparation for the league’s continuation of regular season play.
“It feels good to get back with the team,” Azira said. “You feel like you’re part of something. Unlike the other days, when you’re just training by yourself or with another player, just two of you on an entire field. It feels great now to be back with the guys and get back in the grind.”
“It was like new,” Kappelhof added. “It’s been a long time. I haven’t been back in full team training since the (COVID-19) crisis, so it was good to be back with the team and have some drills with them.”
While Kappelhof continues to rehab individually and in small group drills, he feels close to returning to complete participation at training. Azira has been fully cleared, and is enjoying being surrounded by his teammates again.
“To have them in the locker room and to get that brotherhood you have - talking to each other, goofing off - then going on the field and working hard and playing for each other, it’s really great,” Azira said. “(Head Coach) Rapha (Wicky) does a good job of trying to bring everyone together and being positive and encouraging everyone. It feels great to be back.”
“It was a long time, but it was good to be back with the guys and support them, to find the rhythm again,” Kappelhof said. “The group feeling has to grow again, you know? That’s what we try to work on. The guys were very supportive. They understand my tough situation.”
Kappelhof, the team’s longest-tenured player, has been somewhat of an iron man during his time in Chicago. Rarely injured, he’s averaged 31 appearances per season over his first four years in MLS. However, during his time at home amid MLS’ suspension of regular season play, the 30-year-old defender suffered a leg injury -- one that has slowed his return to full team workouts since training resumed in June.
“I had video calls with the physical trainers, and was trying to do some exercises they gave me through the video call, and that’s it,” Kappelhof said. “I tried to treat myself, but it’s not ideal.”
Azira had his tournament participation pulled out from underneath him on the morning the team was set to depart for Florida. During a training session prior to their flight, the midfielder took a shot to the eye that required immediate attention.
“It happened on the very day that we were supposed to travel,” he said. “When I got hit in the eye, I was like, ‘I’ll be OK.’ But with internal bleeding, within a few minutes I’d lost my sight.”
From there, his expected recovery time of two weeks -- when combined with a potential mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Orlando -- erased his hopes of joining up with his teammates for the tournament.
“I was like, ‘You know, I need to stay positive and have the right mentality and focus on recovering and hopefully I’ll join the team after,’” he said. “After I got cleared by the doctors, they said, ‘Micheal, you can’t travel. When you travel, you’ll be quarantined by yourself and you won’t be able to train with the team.’ So, the coaches had a decision to make, and they thought it wasn’t a good idea to come there.”
“It was a bummer, but at the end of the day things happen and you learn from these things. I got some time with my family, which is very important. There’s some bad, and then there’s some good in it. It’s about perspective.”
That perspective is key for any injured player. Time away from the group can often lead to a sense of isolation as players work to recover their fitness in individual rehab sessions away from the full team. With their teammates and the majority of the technical and training staff gone for weeks in Orlando, Azira and Kappelhof found themselves together combatting that creeping feeling of being left behind.
“It felt like a big distance, literally, between me and the team,” Kappelhof said. “Because I hadn’t been in team training for a while, it felt different. I couldn’t help the team, but it was good to see the team play again.”
“That was really hard,” Azira said. “To watch your teammates on TV, and you’re at home? Something is not right. Why am I here and they’re down there? I’m supposed to be there. I’m supposed to be the best teammate I can be, close to my teammates. I should be in Orlando. I should be there cheering my friends and contributing on the field.”
“It was tough, but I just wanted to stay positive and not choose to be sad or maybe give up,” Kappelhof said. “I just chose to stay positive and work my way back.”
As a result, the pair leaned on one another greatly in the team’s absence. They maintained a regular training schedule at SeatGeek Stadium, with assistant athletic trainer Tyler Golden leading their workouts. For the Fire’s 8 a.m. kickoffs, the trio would meet up at the stadium early to watch their teammates play prior to their session.
“For us, the games in the morning, we had a little party in the locker room,” Azira said. “We’d bring our tea, we’d bring our breakfast, and we’d sit down and watch the game. Me and Johan, we always tried to be in touch.”
They kept in regular contact with the group inside the MLS bubble as well, shifting their focus from contributions on the field to providing positivity while off of it.
“We used to talk to Jonny (Bornstein) and CJ, (Sapong)” Azira said. “We used to FaceTime, do some video calls and talk to them. We also have a group chat. We encourage each other. On gamedays, we’ll be like, ‘Hey guys, good luck today,’ and stuff like that.“
That energy was reciprocated in a big way prior to the team’s group stage finale against Vancouver, when the team sent love back home for Azira, Kappelhof, and fellow injured teammates Jeremiah Gutjahr and Luka Stojanović.
“They even did a video for us,” Azira added. “That was the coolest thing for the guys to do for us. That was really nice, like ‘Guys, we do this for you.’ It’s a good group. I hope we can continue to improve and get results for our club and for our fans.”
“If you have a good group, you can get good results, and I know they are coming.”
The Fire would ultimately exit the MLS is Back Tournament following the group stage. While neither of Azira or Kappelhof hid their disappointment in missing the opportunity to share in both the highs and the lows of the tournament experience, they’re now focused only on the opportunities that lie ahead of them.
“You can’t predict soccer,” Azira said. “The coaches are studying and know what we can do better, what we can improve as a group. It’s created an opportunity for us to be able to push each other and to give our best each and every day. It gives us an opportunity to get together and do things much better.”
The 2020 regular season resumes one week from Thursday, when the Fire will begin a stretch of six matches in 24 days - three at home, and three on the road. A trip Columbus Crew SC on Aug. 20 (6:30 p.m. CT | WGN-TV, ESPN+, TUDN WRTO AM 1200) is the first test that awaits, which then sets up the Club’s long-awaited return to Soldier Field on Aug. 25 against FC Cincinnati (6:30 p.m. CT | WGN-TV, ESPN+, 105.1 WOJO-HD2).
“They’re good teams we’re playing against, so we need to prepare well,” Kappelhof said. “I think we’re all motivated to do well and to get revenge from the tournament. I think the guys worked hard and there was quality, but we didn’t reward ourselves. That’s something we can take revenge on in these games. It’s very important for us to have good results. I’m looking forward to it.”
The tight window of matches and the on-going adherence to COVID-19 health and safety protocols make the Fire’s upcoming phase one challenge a unique one, but Azira is confident in the Club's support for its players.
“It’s different, but it’s something we have to adapt to,” Azira said. “We have to be ready to go no matter what. At the end of the day, we’re soccer players and we should be able to adapt no matter the situation.”
“I’m feeling great,” he added. “Our trainers have done a good job to prepare us as much as possible. I look forward to providing for the team and to contribute as much as I can.”