NEW YORK -- Johan Kappelhof’s career started where many soccer players would kill to start theirs: at the fabled Ajax Academy, the cradle of Dutch excellence that’s produced dozens of international stars. A virtual machine for producing creative, technically skilled attack-minded players, it prepped the 25-year-old defender for a crucial pro turn, with Dutch Eredevisie side FC Groningen.
But after five seasons at the club—and five caps with the Dutch Under-21s--rangy, soft-spoken Kappelhof saw his career at a pause. And when he decided the best next move to continue to develop as a player, it may have raised some eyebrows—he chose to join the newly revamped Chicago Fire.
“After five years I developed, and I was ready to leave,” he says. “I planned it for the summer, but now, in the winter, the Chicago Fire came, so I had to make a decision.”
Since the Amsterdam native joined MLS this past February as a Discovery Signing for the team, Kappelhof has been a constant for the Fire, not missing a minute so far in 2016.
But Kappelhof aims to to fill that in with turning him into a key element of Veljko Paunovic’s new defensive strategy. In fact, though he says he was weighing offers from around Europe, it was Paunovic’s vision and convincing that finally swayed him to come stateside.
“We had a Skype conversation, and before that, I was not convinced,” he says of a winter talk with both Paunovic and fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez. “They told me about the league, the team, and their plan—they were talking about a family and they want to make players better and everything. They had a great plan. So after the conversation I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m more convinced.’”
At 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, he’s reedy compared to some of the physically-dominant MLS strikers against whom he must defend. Still, Kappelhof stood out at Groningen for his skill in staying relaxed and winning duels. He also brings crucial, high-level experience to the squad. Not only did he figure on the KNVB Cup-winning team in 2015, but he also appeared in eight of the team’s UEFA Europa League games last year.
“If the opponent puts high pressure, I’m always easy on the ball. I never stress,” he says of the experience he gleaned at both Groningen and the Ajax academy before that. “I’m a difficult defender. I think I have the speed and I can jump to win duels.”
Kappelhof joins a new backline bolstered by other fresh additions, like Brandon Vincent, Rodrigo Ramos, and Joao Meira. (In the midfield, too, Kappelhof can find a fellow Ajax product, John Goossens.)
Together, he hopes they can learn to better ward off what he describes as “a lot of big strikers” in MLS, citing Columbus Crew SC’s Kei Kamara as a particularly daunting example. “I want to get better, and [the Fire] are taking care of that,” he says. “I’m pretty good on the ball, but [I want to] just win every duel from a big striker, and win headers and everything.”
There’s also one more crucial strategy point of Kappelhof’s move to the Fire: a possible change in national team allegiances. Though he grew up in Amsterdam with a Dutch father and figured on the country’s U-21s, he’s never been called up for the senior side. Now, he’s hoping to represent Ghana, his mother’s home country, at the international level.
“I’m 25 now, so I cannot play for the youth teams--I have to play for the first team in Holland and it’s not like I’m in the picture for that,” he says. “But I think I’m close to playing for Ghana. And I’m proud to play for Ghana because my mother is from there, so I hope it’s gonna be sooner or later.”
But before all that, there’s the matter of making good at his new club. It’ll prove a challenge for Kappelhof as he looks to distinguish himself, now that the new-kid jitters should be over and the season rolls on. And again, he’ll draw on those earliest experiences at Ajax.
“It’s like the package, what the Ajax academy gives you. If you look at the Ajax academy, every player is good on the ball, they have good technique,” he says. “I think I can make a difference in building up from the back.”