When Michael de Leeuwjoined the Chicago Fire and became available upon the opening of the summer transfer window, the club got the attacking, creative type of player it had been looking for but not landed in some time.
Since arriving at the Fire officially a little over a month ago, De Leeuw has registered one goal in his first six games. He's still finding his footing in Chicago, but his goal-scoring abilities with former club FC Groningen are well documented.
With 46 goals across 117 appearances at Groningen, De Leeuw is a player the Fire know that they can build around, even if general manager Nelson Rodriguez has acknowledged that the Dutchman is "not a savior." Still, with the recent addition of Armenian striker David Arshakyan, the Fire are hopeful that De Leeuw will now have the attacking support he needs to become even more impactful as the Fire enter the final third of the season.
We caught up with De Leeuw this week to talk about his soccer roots, his time in the Windy City, Chicago style pizza and hot dogs, his post-playing aspirations, and more.
De Leeuw began playing soccer as a young boy in Holland at the age of five. His father, who also played soccer, would take De Leeuw and his brother to his games during his Sunday league season. Those weekend trips to the pitch gave De Leeuw a desire to kick the ball.
"He didn't play professionally but he was always playing with his team," De Leeuw said. "My brother and I went with him, and we played with all of the other kids of his teammates. He enjoyed the game, and passed it on to me and my brother."
Like any kid who was a product of the 80s, De Leeuw found his enjoyment outdoors, and used those times to help grow his love for the game.
"When your friends also play soccer it's easier to play," he said. "When you play outside - there wasn't any PlayStation yet - so we always played soccer outside."
Not Always an Attacker
De Leeuw played as a central midfield and forward in his adult years, but he wasn't always an attacking player.
"When I was young, when I was I think 10 years old, I played right back. After two years they turned me on to the No. 10 position. For 10-12 years I played in the #10 position, and only in the last four years they tried to put me as first striker, and it went well."
Playing with Arshakyan is something De Leeuw is looking forward to, although the Armenian striker has yet to arrive in Chicago. At 6-foot-4, Arshakyan fits the "big guy" role De Leeuw longs to partner with in the attack. The Dutchman sees one of his strengths in that underneath striker role as one that will be accentuated with the addition of a tall target striker in front of him.
"I think for me the strong position is the second striker, just behind a big guy, I think that's the most dangerous position for me. Like all players, you have a couple positions you can play, and sometimes you have to adapt and do your best in that position."
Like many children, De Leeuw grew up idolizing some of the players from his home country, and, by default, the teams they played for.
"My two favorite players played for Arsenal, [Dennis] Bergkamp and [Marc] Overmars. Both Dutch players."
Despite his love for Arsenal because of his two countrymen, De Leeuw finds enjoyment in a number of teams as an adult, without throwing his full support behind any one side.
"When I was young, you have your favorite team, but now I'm old and not so much one team. You've got several teams all over the world that you follow or you enjoy to watch, but when I was 12 I really enjoyed Arsenal because of Bergkamp and Overmars. You watch them close and you want to be like them, especially Bergkamp because he was like me, in the No. 10 position, but he's one class apart. He's something else."
Like many in the soccer world, one of De Leeuw's favorite current players is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, perhaps more for his off-field antics than his on-field play.
"Of course Ibrahimovic, he's the boss. In his interviews, he's the only one that can say those kinds of things. If someone else said it, [people] would say, 'What's he saying?' but he can do it because he's the boss, and of course he's got playing skills as well."
Kappelhof – Teammates at Groningen and Fire
Michael relied on the help and advice of friends who were already in MLS when he considered moving to Chicago. For De Leeuw, that process was even more seamless thanks to former FC Groningen teammate and friend Johan Kappelhof.
"It helped a lot. Every question I had, I could ask him. Of course you can ask everyone a question, but if you know someone, you know you're not bothering him with questions. You know each other, so you can say a lot of things."
"He taught me a lot of the way they think here, what the expectations are. But also outside football, where I could live, good places to go, and of course we go out to eat sometimes, and John [Goossens] also. John is a great guy."
Now that he's settled in with the Fire, that feeling extends to his new soccer family as well.
"Of course we're Dutch and we speak the language, but I think the team is just one big family. Sometimes we achieve great things, sometimes we go in a [hole] and we have to climb out, but we're one big family."
Initial Chicago Experiences
With the completion of his FC Groningen season and UEFA Europa League play in mid-May, De Leeuw was able to move to Chicago and get settled in prior to being available for his first MLS match after the secondary transfer window opened in early July. That gave De Leeuw a chance to see the sights and get adjusted to a new environment, while picking up some favorite spots along the way.
"I like a sushi restaurant in the South Loop that's a good Asian restaurant. Close to my house, over by Navy Pier, there's a little beach, so sometimes it's cool just to hang out there and gather your thoughts."
This is Michael's first time residing in the United States, but he liked it here as a visitor prior to joining the Fire.
"I loved the States before, and especially the hot spots. I've been to Vegas two times, LA, San Francisco, Miami, so I'm pretty familiar with the US"
"It's a big change from living in the Netherlands. I live together with my girlfriend here, but when I played in Holland her family was there, so I've lived 12 years away from my family. ... It's a good way to develop yourself as a person, because you're living in another city. Small things, though, like shopping for groceries, those were things that in the beginning we would look for things we liked in Holland, but we couldn't find the right spice or the right ingredient. There are little things that are different. I love it out here, though. The weather is also good."
It doesn't take long to talk to Michael and see he's got a calm and pleasant demeanor. So it's no surprise to hear that he would take that personality and temperament and give back in some way, which is what he wants to do when his playing days come to an end.
"I've got a couple things in my mind. I like working with kids, so maybe as a youth trainer, that looks fun. You don't know for sure if it really is what it is, so maybe I'll try that. Also, I like to work with people who've got a handicap...I get my joy from that. After that you don't think about the things you have like you missed a chance. You just see the good things in life."
"That's one thing I also like. Maybe I'll do that, or in 10 years you'll call me and say, 'What are you doing?' and I'll say, 'I'm a lawyer.' You don't know, but those are the things I think I’m going to do. When I was in Holland and home, I did it a couple times in a month, so that's what I think, but when you're doing it every day you don't know."
Perhaps it's a bit of serendipity that De Leeuw plays in MLS for the Chicago Fire. Although his aspirations to play professionally started early in his life, his backup plan, if soccer didn't work out, was putting out flames.
"When I was five, I said, 'I’m going to be a professional player, or I'm going to be a fireman.' That was when I was young. I was late with rolling into a professional team. Before that I worked in an administrative office for houses. Not in real estate, but the office between real estate and the house, in taxes."
De Leeuw is a self-described 'pizza guy,' but is still learning to like Chicago's trademark deep-dish style. That said, De Leeuw loves himself a Chicago-style hot dog.
"Deep dish still has to grow on me. First time I was here I ordered deep dish. The second time I thought it was too much bread. I think it has to grow on you. It's like licorice in Holland. I think, 'It's good,' but when I'm going to bring treats here for everyone they're like, 'Get out of here.' But I already got a Chicago-style hot dog, it's good."