When Michael de Leeuw arrived stateside in early June, he brought with him a skill-set that offered the Chicago Fire an experienced and immediate goal-scoring presence up front. The 46 goals he’d tallied in 117 appearances for former club FC Groningen of the Dutch Eredivisie made that clear to all.
But de Leeuw did much more than just find the back of the net in 2016, also serving as a creator and a vocal presence on the pitch while adapting to his new setting off the field.
“We have the traveling, the different time schedules, that’s all different,” he said, referring to his transition to Major League Soccer. “That’s more the challenge for me. It’s more that it’s different than Europe. But on the other side, it was good for me. I think I adapted well.”
To say the least. After making his Fire debut at halftime of July 9th’s 1-0 defeat in Toronto, the now 30-year-old became one of the team’s most impactful all-around offensive players. A clever finisher and "fox in the box," de Leeuw was additionally tasked with creating chances from a position at the top of the midfield. The Dutchman ultimately delivered three assists and also registered 17 key passes (defined as a pass that leads to a shot on goal) in his 18 appearances, the fourth-most on the team after his July debut.
It wasn’t all roses in year one, though. The team endured a roller coaster of results in July and August as de Leeuw worked his way into Veljko Paunovic’s first-choice starting eleven. That particular run of form was something from which he was happy to see the team rebound.
“At one point we were struggling with games, to win,” he said. “You notice that in the locker room, also, if you’re struggling. You want to win. If you win, there’s a good vibe in the locker room and everywhere and if you don’t, then you’re struggling with that. The challenge then was that we played better than in the first eight or nine games I was here. After that, we played better. We did a great job then.”
The Fire season would hit a high-point form-wise in late August and early September as de Leeuw became firmly entrenched in the attack. From his debut in July through the end of the season, his seven goals scored represented the highest total on the team. His proudest moment of the season, however, came after a match in which he was kept relatively quiet offensively.
“The biggest highlight was the win in Montreal,” he said. “After so many games lost on the road or not having a win on the road, that was a big highlight. Afterwards we were celebrating. Of course, it was still one win, but we felt like we stepped over a boundary. So that was a big highlight.”
To de Leeuw’s credit, he’d finish the season stronger than he started. After playing 37 matches with Groningen, moving across the ocean and racking up another 18 matches played, “The Lion” would finish what became a 14-month season as MLS’ second-highest goal scorer in the month of October. His three tallies were bested only by the four picked up by MLS Golden Boot winner and MVP candidate Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls.
Expectations will be high for his 2017 campaign in Chicago, but as a veteran of first division football, de Leeuw knows what it takes to make the most of an offseason.
“First, mentally I have to take a vacation,” he said. “Then, you’re going to start and build up again. (I’ll be) doing the same like always, not doing things differently. I know what I have to do in the offseason and in preseason, so it’s not going to be very different than all the other seasons for me. Maybe just some holidays in between, then prepare to come back next season.”