He has fewer goals than Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam and draws far less attention than Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, but, in many ways, Michael de Leeuw is the man who makes the Chicago Fire hum.
The versatile Dutch attacker, who primarily plays in the hole underneath a lone striker, leads the Fire with eight assists in 2017 and is perhaps the key cog in their attack. His ability on the ball, positional awareness and tactical smarts free Nikolic, Accam and winger Luis Solignac to do their damage and link that front three with the Schweinsteiger-McCarty holding midfield line.
Without him, things simply don’t run as smoothly for Chicago.
De Leeuw’s substantial skillset (seriously, check out these one-touch, volleyed assists) isn’t found anywhere else on Chicago’s roster. Replacing him will be just about impossible for the Fire, who now must find the best way forward without their 30-year-old lion.
That could mean a rejiggering of their offseason plans to target another midfielder comfortable in the No. 10 role. That won’t be an option until after the playoffs, however. For now, manager Veljko Paunovic has a few options moving forward.
If he's able to return from a knee injury that's sidelined him for the past few games, perhaps the most obvious solution would be to insert Juninho into the starting XI next to McCarty and push Schweinsteiger into a more attacking role. Schweinsteiger, who is coming off an injury of his own, played there early in the season, and often showed well. When healthy, Juninho is plenty talented, and could theoretically slot in alongside McCarty without too much trouble.
That option would keep the most talent on the field for Chicago, but Paunovic might be hesitant to break up Schweinsteiger and McCarty. The duo has been excellent protecting the Fire’s back four and serving as the starting points for their attack, and Juninho has been in and out of the lineup since being acquired from Tijuana this winter. We might see the Fire split Schweinsteiger and McCarty and insert the Brazilian, but I’m not sure it’ll be their first move, especially with Juninho needing to work back toward full fitness.
Paunovic’s other options come higher up on the field. The straightforward play would be to slide 18-year-old Homegrown Djordje Mihailovic into de Leeuw’s vacated No. 10 spot. The rookie has started Chicago’s last two matches and was excellent in a central role against San Jose last Wednesday, scoring his first career goal and registering an assist in the Fire’s 4-1 win at the Quakes. Making him de Leeuw’s replacement is a tantalizing option, especially for the #PlayYourKids® crowd, but giving a teenage rookie with fewer than 600 career minutes the keys to your playoff attack could be a bridge too far.
If Paunovic wants to go with more experience, he can start 32-year-old Arturo Alvarez and slide Solignac into a more central, second striker role underneath Nikolic. That’d change the Fire’s system a bit, but they’ve played with Solignac in the middle before. Alvarez has shown well in recent weeks, too, starting Chicago’s last four matches and earning a call-up to El Salvador’s national team for their friendly against Canada on Sunday.
With Chicago only having two games left in the regular season and needing results to ensure they host a playoff match, Paunovic will have to quickly figure out his plan to replace de Leeuw. My best guess is that we’ll see a combination of Mihailovic and Alvarez in the lineup over the final weeks of the regular season, with a playoff starter picked based on matchup and form.
Regardless of how they choose to replace him, it’s hard to overstate how important de Leeuw is to Chicago. His injury is a huge, huge blow to their attack, and it might just end up derailing their MLS Cup aspirations.