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Fire hopeful forward De Leeuw can make instant impact


BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The Chicago Fire unveiled their newest international forward on Tuesday with a press conference and photo op at Toyota Park, but general manager Nelson Rodriguez was quick to dissuade any notion that Michael de Leeuw will be a cure-all for the last-place club, which has scored fewer goals than any other in Major League Soccer this season.

“I want to be clear, while we have high hopes and expectations for Michael and for his play for our club, he’s not a savior,” Rodriguez said in his opening statement. “He is just an important piece to what we’re trying to build through a deliberate and thoughtful process. One can easily look at his goal-scoring record as an indicator of his abilities but as we’ve spoken in the past, we first look at the man and then the player. We are thrilled to add Michael’s winning character to our locker room.

“He wanted this challenge and that was very important to us. He selected us as much as we selected him. We believe that he is a champion. His name in dutch means lion, which I think is apropos, for you will see a real predator in the box, one who hunts down goals at every turn. And I believe with some of the other pieces that we’ve added, we continue to build a winning locker room. I would only ask that the fans be patient. Acclimation to Major League Soccer is difficult. This is not an easy league, there are no easy games, this is the most competitively balanced league in the world top to bottom. But I’m sure given time, our fans will come to love Michael’s personality on and off the field.”

It was a day to “finally and formally” meet de Leeuw, as Rodriguez called it, since the signing had been announced last month and rumored for even longer.

The 29-year-old forward joins the Fire from FC Groningen of the Dutch Eredivisie on a three-year contract through the 2018 season, and includes a team option for the 2019 season.

“I’m 29 right now and for me it was also, I played for four years (at Groningen) and it’s good to, how do you say, get a new environment so you stay hungry,” De Leeuw said. “With Groningen everything was the same so now I’ve got a new environment. And also it’s a good way for me to develop in another country.”

In four seasons with Groningen, De Leeuw scored 46 goals in 117 league games. He scored nine goals and assisted on two in 29 league games this past season and appeared in four Europa League matches.

De Leeuw described himself as a “nine and a half” able to play as a striker or drop off to create, but did say, “I like the box, that’s more the area where I like to play.”

Whether or not its fair, a lot will be expected of the striker as he joins a team which has scored 10 goals in 12 games thus far and he didn’t seem to shy away from that expectation.

“In the last couple years I made my goals,” De Leeuw said. “I’m a player, I’m going to make my goals but I don’t want to says numbers because I don’t want to put a lot of pressure, but I know I’m going to make goals. Better be soon than late.”

To that, Rodriguez interjected, saying “soon and often” is what they’re hoping.

Asked whether he could help a last-place team push for the playoffs, De Leeuw said, “I hope so. We only have one way and that’s up, so we can’t go down.”

De Leeuw will be reunited with former teammate Johan Kappelhof, whom the Fire signed from Groningen before the season began. It was that transaction, Rodriguez said, that led them to De Leeuw.

“In watching Groningen play several times, our attention kept being drawn to Michael and his efforts on the field,” Rodriguez said. “What excites us the most is we think we’ve added another important piece to the championship program we’re trying to build.”

While the Fire are excited to add De Leeuw, they will not be able to use him in competition for almost another month.

Despite the signing being announced in May, de Leeuw’s transfer was not completed before the initial window closed so he is not eligible to play for the Fire until after July 4 when MLS’s secondary transfer window opens. De Leeuw could make his Fire debut on July 9 against Toronto FC at BMO Field.

Until then, De Leeuw said, “I can adapt, and I get to know the players, get to know everyone, of the city. So for me it’s also good that I can play then. I want to, I’d rather play tomorrow, because I want to show Chicago, show everyone what I can do, what my capabilities are. But yeah I feel fit so I think it’s no problem to blend in.”

Since the Eredivisie season ended in mid May, De Leeuw said he took a short break to rest and now is getting back onto an individual fitness plan the club has given him.

“I’m feeling fit, I don’t have any injuries. It’s just I have to be fitter and game ready,” de Leeuw said.

The Fire said they’ve put De Leeuw on a five-week plan to replicate a preseason. “We believe that plan will help him adjust well for demands and level of the league,” head coach Veljko Paunovic said.

“The demands and adjustments for this league are huge and it’s going to be a hard time for him for sure to adapt,” Paunovic said. “But he’s a great guy, you can see his numbers, you can see him play, he’s a great player and we believe that he will do that great.”

Of course welcoming a new central forward leads to discussion of the team’s current designated player forward, Gilberto, who has not been with the team for more than two weeks. The Brazilian asked for personal time away before the team’s last match, a May 28 draw with Portland, and has not rejoined the squad after the week-long break from training. There have been reports of a possible contract buyout or a move back to Brazil.

“It’s Michael’s day and I would prefer it to be Michael’s day,” Rodriguez said when asked for an update on Gilberto. “But Gilberto continues to complete his individualized training. I have not had any discussions with his agent in the past week and when we have further news, we will share it. He will not be in the panel for selection for tomorrow.”

The Fire host NASL’s Indy Eleven in the U.S. Open Cup fourth round at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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