As Schweinsteiger, Juninho recover, Fire's Mihailovic gets chance to shine

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Until suffering a torn ACL, Michael de Leeuw was the unsung hero of the Chicago Fire offense, leading the team in assists and putting in a strong work rate, but only tallying three goals of his own. Now, heading into the season’s most important stretch without him, de Leeuw’s coach and teammates know he won’t be easy to replace.

“Listen, I think there are some specifics that can not be replaced,” Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic said. “But all these guys … and everyone in the team this year when they stepped up and they had the opportunity to play I think they did well and they proved that we can count on them.

“We believe that we have replacements and we believe that whoever has the opportunity to play, he has to earn it also in this week’s training and based on our opponent we will make the decision at the end who’s going to play. But we are confident, we believe we have guys who can do the job well and most importantly they are ready and they are fully committed to do that.”

As the Fire prepare to face the Philadelphia Union on Sunday (5 pm ET | MLS LIVE), it’s still unclear exactly how Paunovic will fill the de Leeuw-sized hole in his formation, but he has a few options – from former starters Juninho and Bastian Schweinsteiger who are recovering from injuries, to veteran Arturo Alvarez or Fire academy products Djordje Mihailovic and Drew Conner.

Each set of options for Paunovic presents a different question or opportunity.

For the two former starters, health is the question. Juninho has returned to running without a brace on his injured knee but is not back in full training. Schweinsteiger played for the first time against NYCFC but hasn’t returned to full training either, working inside both Wednesday and Thursday.

On Wednesday, Paunovic said both “are basically in the final phase of recovery but we have to evaluate on a daily basis and see if they can be available for Philly and then obviously Houston.”

While the Fire still could grab the second seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round bye in the next two games, Paunovic also said that they could both rest with eyes toward having them ready for the playoffs.

In that case, Alvarez, Mihailovic or Conner would take on a starting role, though talking to all three of them on Wednesday no one tipped the coaching staff’s hand.

“As of right now the coaches haven’t really said anything, we’re just looking forward to this week, we’ll know later this week what the squad and formation are going to look like,” Mihailovic said. “We’re just all getting focused and working hard together to put someone in the place of a starter, a key player for us, a key role.”

The most likely candidate to step up in de Leeuw’s absence might be Mihailovic, who has started and gone the full 90 minutes in the past two matches, including his first career goal, plus an assist against San Jose.

“As long as the team is winning each player is feeling confident in themselves so confidence is number one for me right now,” Mihailovic said. “Being the youngest on the field can be hard sometimes but as long as I’m connecting the simple things and just helping the team win that’s most important.

“Looking back in preseason I was shy, a little timid when I played because I was like, ‘Hey I’m playing with the professional team now,’” Mihailovic said. “But as the months went by and just continuing getting minutes from the coaches and seeing their confidence in me that brings everything into me.”

That budding confidence seems to be the keyword with the 18-year-old.

“We are building his confidence, his game and obviously the experience, we’ve been working on that throughout the whole season,” Paunovic said. “So he’s getting to the level which is required to play in MLS and being a reliable guy and we are very happy with his progress. We also know that Djordje also needs some time and some experience to get to the level where we believe he can get.”

John Wilkinson is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.