Dynamic Kappelhof providing versatility for Fire defense

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof has already made one big move this year, tackling a new country and new league. What was one more?

With the Fire preparing for a Saturday contest at home with the Philadelphia Union (7:30 p.m. CT, CSN Chicago Plus), a period of rest was worked in coming off of last week’s stretch of three matches in eight days. While this weekend’s lineup choices remain to be seen, head coach Veljko Paunovic leaned on Kappelhof to man the right side of his defense during his team’s busy week.

“I’ve played there,” Kappelhof said. “Not as much as central defender, but if the coach needs me on the right, I can play there.”

Kappelhof has started 19 times in central defense this season after moving overseas to join the club from Holland’s FC Groningen in February. However, he was moved out wide from his traditional spot next to rookie Jonathan Campbell prior to the team’s 3-0 victory in Montreal on Aug. 20, and was a key factor in keeping dynamic Impact attacking duo Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti off the scoresheet.

“I think on the ball I can make the right choices and I can see the moments to attack with the team,” he said. “I think defensively I can win my duals at right back. In the right back position, you run more than in the central defending position, so after the games I was tired, but it’s good for me.”

The switch to the outside was of no concern to Kappelhof, even ahead of a matchup against a pair of the league’s most feared attackers. His experiences in the Dutch Eredivisie prior to coming to Major League Soccer helped shape a defensive philosophy that translates across positions.

“I like Ignacio Piatti in Montreal, and (Didier) Drogba is of course a good striker,” Kappelhof said. “I think these kinds of players. You have to be short on them. Don’t give them a good feeling to turn and give them the time on the ball. You have to be short and let them know that you’re ready to take the ball. They have to feel you every time they have the ball. I like to step up on these kinds of players and not give them the chance to turn and show their quality. I love to play against these kinds of players, big names. It’s a good thing for you if you win the duels and it gives you a good feeling.”

While it won’t be personally satisfying for the 26-year-old, Kappelhof’s three consecutive stints on the right side last week were mostly positive from an individual standpoint. After muting the aforementioned Impact attack, Kappelhof and forward David Accam were the team’s highest-rated players (according to WhoScored.com) following their mid-week draw with the LA Galaxy.

To put a cap on the heavy week, the Dutchman then logged a season-high nine defensive interceptions during the Fire’s defeat in D.C. and currently leads MLS in the category with 91. Kappelhof credits his defensive instincts with his ease in transition.

“Normally the striker is with his back to you if you’re a central defender,” he said. “Now the winger is open to you to make the action. You have to decide when to step up on him, to be short on him, or when to just close the inside so he cannot pass inside. That’s dangerous. And help the central defenders and come inside when the ball is on the other side. Those kinds of things. I don’t think about it. It goes automatically.”

Certainly, the Fire would rather see Kappelhof's defensive numbers decrease from where they were vs. D.C., given the pressure withstood by the Men In Red. Still, plays need to be made no matter the amount, and Kappelhof’s willingness to be flexible when needed was to the team’s benefit during last week’s match gauntlet.

“We believe that he helped, especially in the game in Montreal,” Paunovic said. “He played the way we want to play. Our fullbacks can go up and down and defend and also be good on the ball and – especially in the final third – coming with a lot of danger in the final third and having good crosses. That’s something that we believe also helps the team, and of course his experience on the field.”

It’s unclear whether Kappelhof will remain on the right side long-term, but the versatility in his game will undoubtedly continue to give Paunovic room to get a preferred eleven on the field no matter where he lines up.

“I think Johan is a versatile player who can play in three positions – centerback, as a fullback, and also he can play as a defensive midfielder,” Paunovic said. “All three positions he played very often for Groningen in the past, that’s how we selected him. That’s how we found him. We saw him play in those positions…Johan is very important for the team and his versatility gives us more options.”