As much as the Chicago Fire's Michael de Leeuw showed he could roar in attack after arriving in summer of 2016, his 2017 showed he could just as effectively scratch, bite, claw and play a little midfield, too.
A forward (or withdrawn forward) by trade, de Leeuw did most of his damage in and around the 18-yard box throughout his career with FC Groningen of the Dutch Eredivisie, and that continued following his arrival in Chicago. After his much-hyped mid-season debut in July of 2016, "the Lion" would chip in seven goals and three assists across 18 appearances in a half-season's worth of work. With a full offseason and preseason slate with which to continue acclimating to his new team, he was poised for a breakout 2017 campaign.
Things changed, at least on paper, when Nemanja Nikolic became the Fire’s marquee attacking signing last December. Nikolic had led the Hungarian and Polish first divisions in scoring over the prior three seasons in stops at Videoton and Legia Warsaw, respectively, and – as a Designated Player - would surely slot into the starting line up at forward from the outset.
Few (if any) questioned de Leeuw's ability to be an impact player in the upcoming season, but from where on the field that impact would come remained to be seen. As Fire fans would soon find out, de Leeuw found his way onto the pitch in a new role in the team's midfield. Alongside fellow forward-by-trade Luis Solignac, head coach Veljko Paunovic opted to deploy the pair deeper and generally on the opposite wing of David Accam, or sometimes as the point of a midfield triangle that would come to feature any combination of offseason additions Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, and Juninho.
From there, de Leeuw seized upon his newfound challenge of winning 50/50 balls, recovering possession, and getting the ball churning forward into attack. It’s not as sexy as scoring goals, but de Leeuw’s willingness and ability to do the “dirty work” in midfield became foundational in the Fire's possession-based style of play in 2017.
"For me, it means just work," he said back in June. "Working for the team. Running the dirty runs for each other...winning balls for the team so that we have possession. We don't have to run the transition in defense. That, for me, is the dirty work. For me, it's natural."
As he adjusted to the deeper role and his new teammates settled in around him in early on, the Fire would rip off an 11-match unbeaten streak that began in May that stretched all the way until mid-July’s league break for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. To that point, de Leeuw’s work rate in the midfield had become evident, and he'd further endeared himself to teammates and fans alike as a result. However, despite the hard work he was putting in, there was no denying the big, ugly zero that lingered in the once-forward's goal column as the season approached its midway point.
Finally, in the Fire’s final home match before the Gold Cup break -- a July 1st visit from the Vancouver Whitecaps -- he broke through:
The Dutchman put an emphatic finish on a 4-0 rout of the Whitecaps, slotting his first goal of the season past Vancouver 'keeper David Ousted in the 84th minute. With the ball in the back of the net, de Leeuw's teammates immediately dog-piled on top of him with hugs and high fives. Sacrificing his personal goal haul for the betterment of the team had been the story of de Leeuw's season to that point, making his long overdue breakthrough a moment worthy of celebration.
As Fire play-by-play man Dan Kelly put it, the Lion was off his leash.
The Fire would enter the Gold Cup break at the top of the Supporters' Shield standings, but would struggle to regain their form when league play resumed in late July. After enduring a late-summer stretch of six losses in seven matches, the Fire would recover in time to stabilize and finish third in the Eastern Conference en route to the club's first playoff berth since 2012.
Along the way, de Leeuw remained a key fulcrum of the Fire attack. He'd net in back-to-back games in early August -- a 4-1 win over New England and a 3-1 loss at Columbus -- while also displaying a flair for the acrobatic with a trio of one-touch assists to Fire finishers.
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When it was all said and done, he'd finish the regular season with eight assists, tied atop the team leaderboard in the category with Accam.
For as much as de Leeuw's newly discovered range of on-field abilities was among 2017's biggest revelations, the injury he suffered 27 minutes into the Fire's home match against New York City FC on Sept. 30 was among its lowest moments. A knee-to-knee collision with NYCFC's Yangel Herrera sent de Leeuw to the locker room in a match that finished a 1-1 draw, where it was later revealed that he'd ruptured his left anterior cruciate ligament and would miss the remainder of the Fire's season.
Two weeks later, the Fire hosted the Philadelphia Union in their 2017 home finale. Nikolic would score a hat trick on his way to wrapping up the 2017 MLS Golden Boot award in what became a 3-0 rout of the club's Eastern Conference counterparts. After netting his first goal just three minutes into the match, he sprinted to the Fire bench to pay tribute to his injured teammate.
While it remains uncertain when exactly de Leeuw will first feature for the Fire when 2018 rolls around, rest assured the Lion is well on the road to recovery.