The veteran Dutch defender had played thousands of minutes for the Fire to that point -- 11,106 of them to be exact -- but those three against the Impact were significant. The appearance marked the end of the longest absence of Kappelhof’s Fire career, having not played since the Club’s 1-1 draw at New England on March 7.
Kappelhof injured his quad while training from home after Major League Soccer temporarily suspended the regular season in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, then dealt with unexpected setbacks as the season resumed in July and August.
No less than an ironman during his first four seasons in Chicago, Kappelhof had played in 125 of the Fire’s 137 matches from 2016 to 2019. Of those 125 matches, he started 123 of them and put in full 90-minute shifts in 117.
In this Recovery Q&A presented by NovaCare, Kappelhof discusses the difficulties of dealing with his first lengthy injury, the mental side of rehab, and how special it felt to return to the team training after so much time away.
Read highlights from the conversation (edited for clarity) below:
ChicagoFireFC.com: You’ve now made substitute appearances in the Fire’s past two games after returning from your quad injury. How has it felt to get back on the field after all this time?
Johan Kappelhof: “It feels great to be back. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for the long time, a few months. I had a few setbacks. It was a tough injury. It was a tough time for me personally in my career. I’ve never dealt with many injuries, but this was a tough period mentally, especially. But, the boys, the team, they helped me get through it and I worked hard to get back. I’m really happy now.”
CFFC.com: Can you shed a little light on the injury: How and when it happened, and what went through your mind in those first few moments afterward?
JK: “The injury happened during the COVID time that we had to stay at home, the quarantine time. We got a schedule to train on our own, so I was training on concrete, you know? We had to be creative to find a way to get your workout done. One day was some concrete, the other day was some turf. Maybe not too smart. It was a bad turf. It was my last sprint of the training and I wanted to go full, and that’s where the quad strain happened.”
“During recovery, I couldn’t get any treatment, so it was tough to deal with. When we got back (to team training), I had two or three setbacks on the quad. That’s why it took pretty long.”
CFFC.com: Through your first four years in Chicago, you’d barely missed a start. What was it like trying to adjust to being sidelined after the injury?
JK: “Mentally, it’s hard to watch the game from the side and not be able to participate and help the team. It was hard, and it was a new situation for me in my career. I’m happy that I got through it. It makes you stronger mentally, and it also makes you appreciate being healthy and fit. That makes you appreciate it more and more, and be aware to make sure you maintain your strength and keep being fit. It’s a lesson for me in my career, and hopefully it doesn’t happen again (laughs).”
CFFC.com: Rehabbing obviously takes a great deal of physical effort, but how important is the mental side of recovery - especially when it’s a long-term injury?
JK: “The mental part is most important. Physically, you will get fit. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it takes shorter, but I think it’s mostly the mental part to stay focused and keep working hard on your own. We’re used to training in a team as footballers, but now you have to train on your own in the gym. It’s tough, but we’re professionals and this is part of the job we have.”
"It makes you stronger mentally, and it also makes you appreciate being healthy and fit."
CFFC.com: How was your experience working with the folks at NovaCare?
JK: “Working with Jon (Williams) at NovaCare was good for me. It was just 10 minutes from my apartment, so I could just go there and get some treatment in after we were allowed to have treatment. It’s very important for the injury I had to get good, quality treatment. I’m happy that I could go with Jon a few times.”
CFFC.com: Did the rehab process make you appreciate playing the game more?
JK: “Yeah, for sure. To have this injury repeat itself a few times, it also (made me) question myself. 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. That’s why I questioned myself. Where can I improve myself to maintain my fitness level and maintain my health? That’s what I’ve been thinking about during these times. I’m just happy to be back and -- more importantly -- to stay back, stay with the team, and stay fit.”
CFFC.com: We saw Francisco Calvo “introduce” himself to you at training in his Mic’d Up video. How did it feel to get back out there with the full team at training on that first day?
JK: “It’s those little things. Calvo made a joke like he was introducing himself. Those little things -- the fun we have in the team, the jokes we make -- it’s fun to be a part of that and to be a part of the team. It was really good to be back and it’s very important for me to stay fit and just help the team as much as I can.”
“To be back with the team and in training sessions, that’s why I worked my ass off to get back with the team - to participate in 5-v-5, passing drills, instead of running around the field on your own. It’s a big difference to be a part of the winning feeling -- like during 5-v-5 or a possession game -- to get the desire to win the drill. That’s very good for me to get that feeling back and be a part of that.”
CFFC.com: How would you assess your current level of fitness?
JK: “This is my second full week of training with the team, so somewhere between 95-100%. I’m not at 100 yet, but with the few training sessions we have ahead of us, I can get back to 100. It’s just my second week full with the team, so I need to be patient and get my rhythm back and the game feeling. I’m glad I got some minutes in the last two games. That’s good to have the game feeling back. I’m ready to help the team.”
CFFC.com: What are your expectations for yourself and for the team over this hectic final month of the the regular season?
JK: “It’s very important with a lot of games ahead of us to have everyone on board. We need to be on the same page. With every three days we have a game, so we need everyone to be focused and fit and ready to step in whenever. I think that’s very important to get the winning feeling back and to keep rolling.”