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Johan Kappelhof is healthy and back with the Fire. Can he win a starting job?

“I think every player starts at zero. The past doesn’t count.”

MLS: Chicago Fire at Seattle Sounders FC
Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof (right) kicks the ball away from Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Cristian Roldan
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

In his entire career with the Chicago Fire, Johan Kappelhof had never logged less than 2500 minutes. He played 125 matches during that stretch, starting 123 of them. To say he was a key player would be a vast understatement.

Kappelhof’s healthy run came crashing down in 2020. It had nothing to do with Covid, though. It was a quad injury that just wouldn’t go away. Every time Kappelhof thought he was healthy, the injury would come creeping back. His final 2020 stats: Four games played, two started, 200 minutes.

After a long winter, Kappelhof is finally healthy.

“I feel great,” Kappelhof said. “I feel fresh. I’ve been working out the whole off-season. I feel good to go, and I’m available for the coach wherever he needs me, and I think I can contribute my experience, my qualities on the ball defensively. I’m ready for the season, and I’m excited.”

During an interview with Raphael Wicky in January, the Fire’s coach went out of his way to mention how excited he was that Kappelhof was coming back. Wicky actually listed him as a “new” player coming in for 2021.

Now, the Fire’s longest-tenured player will have a full preseason to prove to Wicky he’s ready to contribute, be it at his natural centerback position, or potentially as a right back.

“I think it’s very important,” Kappelhof said of preseason. “I mean, for every player. I was injured last year, but I think every player starts at zero this year. The past doesn’t count. It starts from the preseason now, and everyone needs to prove themselves, and that’s how it works in football. I’m just really looking forward to showing myself and earning my spot on the team.”

There was a thought Kappelhof, who is now 30, might be dealt in the off-season. The Fire are in the middle of a youth movement, and there only four guys left in their 30s on the roster (Jonathan Bornstein, Kenneth Kronholm and Bobby Shuttleworth are the others). He was left unprotected by the Fire in Austin FC’s expansion draft, something some players would consider a slap in the face. But Kappelhof doesn’t look at it that way.

“The fact that I was not protected for the draft, I think it’s pretty understandable,” Kappelhof said. “I was injured the whole season. I don’t think there was a big chance that Austin would trade me or wanted me. It’s completely understandable, and this is for me a season to show myself again and to prove myself, show myself what I did in the past to have a good year again, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Kappelhof’s first chance to prove himself will be Saturday at 11 a.m. CT, when the Fire face New York City FC in their preseason opener.

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He’s several MLS clubs removed at this point, but former Fire Academy product Andrew Gutman’s recent move to the New York Red Bulls should end up netting the Fire some General Allocation Money. The Fire are due $50,000 in GAM from FC Cincinnati once Gutman hits 30 MLS appearances, which will happen in his next match. Then, the Fire will get another $50,000 in GAM once Gutman plays his 50th league match.