Chicago Fire rebuilding roster around Dutch trio: "Quality is everything"

CHICAGO – When general manager Nelson Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic joined the Chicago Fire last winter, their first priority was to begin rebuilding their roster in the offseason, with an eye towards putting together a group that Paunovic could mold into his tactical style as a new coach in MLS.

One of the first players brought in under the new technical staff was Dutch center back Johan Kappelhof (pictured above). Kappelhof, who came to MLS from FC Groningen, was soon after joined by Dutch midfielder John Goossens, who impressed the Fire enough as a trialist throughout the preseason to earn a contract after the final game of Portland's SIMPLE Invitational in March.

The team would add another Dutch attacker in the summer transfer window, when Michael de Leeuw, a Groningen teammate of Kappelhof, came to Chicago in May after his season with FC Groningen ended.

While Chicago's offense has struggled at times this season, Paunovic believes the pipeline the team has developed in bringing Dutch players to the league and their side is paying off, albeit slowly. They'll get another chance to strut their stuff against Orlando City on Sunday afternoon (4 pm ET; UniMás).

Paunovic likened his Dutch trio to some of the all-time greatest players to come out of the Netherlands.

"I actually compare them to [Marco] Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and [Frank] Rijkaard," Paunovic told on Thursday. "We can all see that they are quality players, classy players, and their addition playing as a trio is very good for us. We’ll still see more improvements in our game with the three of them playing and getting to know each other better.

"It’s true that Johan and Michael did play together for a long time, but John didn’t, so we believe that we have to make associations in our squad. And not only them, but we have to add David [Arshakyan, the Armenian striker who is expected to join the team this month] and more players who can help and improve our attack. With the three of them, we feel that we have at least one thing done."

Paunovic sees the Dutch style of play, evident abroad in players like Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, as a style that could benefit the league as a whole. At present, the Fire hold the only three Dutchmen currently residing in MLS.

"It’s very direct, it’s a style where technically and tactically it's very simple, and it’s a goal-scoring approach," Paunovic said of the Dutch style. "They’re quality players and they are expensive, so it’s not easy for the league to bring these kind of players. But for sure I think in the future it’s going to be something a lot of teams [should pursue]."

De Leeuw said he is trying to teach his teammates the Dutch way to play soccer.

"I think bit by bit we show [the Dutch style] in the team ... our way of thinking, how to train and of course having experience and the way I played in Holland, I’ve tried to show the guys," de Leeuw said Thursday. "If at some points we have to play different, then I will show it, but at the end it’s the trainer who decides how we play."

For Chicago, the hope is that the introduction of players like De Leeuw and his Dutch teammates will only be accentuated more by the pending arrival of Arshakyan. While that partnership has yet to materialize (Arshakyan is expected to debut against Montreal Impact on Aug. 20), Paunovic sees the possibilities as something exciting that he's anticipating putting into action.

"I think we were looking for the player that would be the right fit for Michael," Paunovic said. "Arshakyan can be a guy that Michael will take advantage of his qualities playing beneath, but I think it also gives us more variety in attack and playing different styles. We will become more unpredictable, and I think that's the key in the modern game; being unpredictable, being ready to adapt. And of course, quality is everything.

"I believe these three guys that we have here, they’re opening the door for more players to come. With their performance, their attitude and style, it’s something that is helpful for the league, and for us."