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Fire's centerback position finally appears set

Fire's centerback position finally appears set
Chicago Fire defender Jonathan Campbell (16) smiles after scoring his first career MLS goal against D.C. United at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL on Saturday, April 30, 2016 (Sean King for Chicago Fire Confidential)

The Fire are off to their worst start after twelve games in team history (2-5-5) but there have been some rays of hope evident in the side. Following a 4-3 loss at home on opening day, Veljko Paunovic reshuffled his side and moved rookie centerback Jonathan Campbell into the starting line-up. The move paired him with the biggest acquisition of the offseason, Johan Kappelhof.

The combination, along with a more defensive game plan, has helped the Fire maintain a place among the league leaders in goals-against average. They currently sit seventh in that category and second in goals allowed although they have played less games than all but two other clubs. The play of Campbell and Kappelhof has been one of the few bright spots in another bumpy start and much of the credit for the success of the stingier style of play can be directed their way.

The Fire have been looking to solidify the back line since the untimely retirement of Arne Friedrich left a gaping hole at the centerback position early into the 2013 season. The Fire traded for former player Bakary Soumare in May of that year in anticipation of Friedrich's retirement in June. Soumare was nowhere near the player that he was when he left for France in August of 2009 and 2012 Rookie of the Year Austin Berry seemed lost without the German's guidance in 2013.

The following season Berry was jettisoned and new coach Frank Yallop traded another defensive prospect, Jalil Anibaba for aging Seattle defenders Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni. The Hurtado/Soumare pairing didn't work either and neither of the two were back with the team in 2015.

Yallop tried unsuccessfully to address the position again in 2015 when he added Adailton and moved Jeff Larentowicz permanently to the backline. Eric Gehrig was the back-up plan but he was injured late in the year and mid-season acquisition Ty Harden was a non-factor.

With Yallop relieved of his duties, another rebuilding program took effect and defense seemed to be the main focus of Nelson Rodriguez and Paunovic's vision for the team in 2016. The Fire moved Joevin Jones to Seattle on SuperDraft day in a trade that would allow them to draft Campbell, who some draft analysts called the most "MLS-ready" centerback available. That set the table for a pairing that finally works even though Campbell didn't start the opening match against New York City FC. He was inserted at half time as a substitute for Gilberto.

Since then, the combination that Rodriguez referred to as "Campbelhof" during his recent media roundtable interview has worked and started more games together this season than just about every other centerback pairing in the league. The frequency of the combinations don't necessarily coincide with the best defensive teams but it's evident that Paunovic has two players in the backline that can be counted on to start every match.

Here's a ranking in order of frequency for the same two centerbacks in the starting line-up together across MLS:

Brilliant/Hernandez - NYCFC 12 starts

Kappelhof/Campbell - CHI - 11 starts

Birnbaum/Boswell - DC 11 starts

Goncalves/Farrell - NE 10 startrs

Waston/Parker - VANC 10 starts

Coelho/Besler - SKC 10 starts

Cabrera/Ciman - MTL 9 starts

Perquis/Moor - TFC 9 starts

Sjoberg/Burling - COL 8 starts

Steres/Van Damme - LAG 8 starts

Evans/Marshall - SEA 7 starts

Ridgewell/Borchers - PORT 7 starts

Borchers/Taylor - PORT 7 starts

Marquez/Yaro - PHL 7 starts

Redding/Seb Hines - ORL 7 starts

Parkhurst/Sauro - 7 starts

Horst/Rodriguez - HOU 7 starts

Hedges/Zimmerman - FCD 6 starts

Loyd/Zimmerman - FCD 6 starts

Bernardez/Imperiale - SJ 6 starts

Bernardez/Wynne - 6 starts

Duvall/Collin - NYRB 3 starts

Injuries, trades, and the occasional three-man backlines alter the number but it's evident that the Fire are finally establishing some consistency at the position. Campbell has impressed Paunovic enough that the coach touts him as a potential US Men's National Team player sometime in the near future.

“He speaks very highly of me. I know he has a lot of faith in me and I have a lot of faith in him as a coach," Campbell told Fire Confidential after a recent training session when asked about Paunovic's praise. "You can’t look into it too much. I know there are some great players that probably don’t get looks, and there are other players that are in there. You just have to focus on your playing and hope that Klinsmann gives you a look or with the U-23’s. There are different areas but you just have to focus on your play."

Along with Seattle's Jordan Morris and Philadelphia's Keegan Rosenberry, Campbell has to be considered among the top candidates for this year's MLS Rookie of the Year award. “You want to strive high but obviously it’s just the beginning of the season. I just want to focus on being consistent the rest of the season. Hopefully I can do that. Awards will come but right now I’m just focusing on the next game," said Campbell of the prospect.

In a similar manner that Berry played off of the veteran Friedrich, Campbell has leaned on Kappelhof. At 25 years old and previous experience limited to five years with FC Groningen, Kappelhof is nowhere near as seasoned or decorated as Friedrich was but he's been a steadying influence for Campbell despite his young age.

“Learning from him and watching him play, he’s very calm on the ball. You always know where he’ll be,” said Campbell of his interaction with the Ajax youth academy product.

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof (4) kicks the ball up the pitch against the Houston Dynamo at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL on Saturday, May 21, 2016 (Sean King for Chicago Fire Confidential)

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof (4) kicks the ball up the pitch against the Houston Dynamo at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL on Saturday, May 21, 2016 (Sean King for Chicago Fire Confidential)

Kappelhof credits the work done in practice to improving defensively since that first game in New York. Working with two different starting goalkeepers this season hasn't affected the play of either he or Campbell. “We trained hard and we spoke a lot about how we want to defend," he said of the change following the opener. "We communicate very good and from the first game we’ve built up and trained hard."

Kappelhof is equally complimentary of Campbell and his quick progression from rookie to every-game starter. “He wants to learn, that’s the most important thing," he said of Campbell. "He’s open for everything. He just communicates good and he’s just improving every game. He’s doing great. He’s a very talented guy. He knows what he can do and that’s a very important thing. That’s his quality and I’m happy to play with him."

Fire brass has shied away from using the "rebuilding" term but that's essentially where the club is again as Rodriguez and Paunovic try to shuffle and find the right pieces to maintain some form of competitiveness in the first year of what Rodriguez has described as a possible three year progression to challenging for hardware again.

The start to the season doesn't bode well for any potential playoff appearance but that hasn't stopped Kappelhof from thinking he made the right choice in coming to Chicago. The league itself has met his expectations and he was comfortable enough with where he was to recommend it to former FC Groningen teammate Michael de Leeuw.

“It’s a high level," Kappelhof said of the play in MLS. "There are very good players in the league. You have to work hard to win games and get points. I think we can improve very much here. I’m very happy with the choice to come to Chicago Fire."

The twenty-five year old defender signed a three-year deal with the Fire in February and should be a staple in the line-up over the next few seasons. When the deal expires he may still be young enough to make another move, but for now he's happy.

“I’m just looking step by step. It was a big choice for me. It was a great choice. I think for me it was a step forward and a new adventure. I think I came here to become a better player and this is a very good league to do that. From here we’ll see what’s going to happen," he said.

Regardless of how successful the Rodriguez/Paunovic era will be, the Fire seem to finally have a centerback pairing that can be productive for more than one season.

One that should be together when the team matures into the contender that Rodriguez cites when discussing the "process".

Note:

The Fire will face Indy Eleven in the fourth round of the US Open Cup on Wednesday, June 15 at Toyota Park.

Indy defeated Louisville City 2-1 to advance to the next round. This will mark the first meaningful game between two clubs engineered by Peter Wilt.

Filed under: 2016 Regular Season

Tags: Chicago Fire

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  • Peter Wilt had many sons, and many sons had he...

  • In reply to BrianC.:

    peter wilt ‏@PeterWilt1 17h17 hours ago
    I guess it'll be like having my two kids compete - if older one was kidnapped by a cult & a decade later was unrecognizable. #stillloveboth

    What an epic tweet!

  • In reply to Guillermo Rivera:

    So that makes AH a modern-day David Koresh or Jim Jones...

  • In reply to Guillermo Rivera:

    Brilliant!!!

  • Nice article, Guillermo! As much as there is that needs improvement in this year's team, this pairing is one thing that is worth praising.

    I know that a lot of people, in looking at the back line, compare Jones to our current fullbacks and criticize the move to get rid of him. Considering that Jones was the key to getting Campbell - a very solid, young (read: cheap) centerback, and an American at that - it seems like you can't make a direct comparison when thinking about the logic behind the moves.

    The Friedrich-Berry combination was good but it seems like a Friedrich-anyone combination might have been good. That what makes this one so intriguing - with Kappelhof on a three-year deal, and Campbell being a rookie, we have a combination to build on in the years to come if they keep getting reps.

  • In reply to Modibo:

    Totally agree. Also, I think recently there has been significant improvement from Vincent at LB. His crosses are consistent and well placed. I believe with more players in the box, his crosses will lead to more goals. He has a very good shot, but he has seemed hesitant and maybe a little too deferential to others to let it fly. His accuracy will improve if he shoots more. If he shoots more his crosses will have a better chance of success. There is a lot of upside with Vincent. He should continue to get more starts.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Modibo:

    Jones was not the key to getting Campbell. As I have said, there are plenty of scenarios where Chicago gets Campbell and allocation $ and just keeps Jones with no brandon vincent. As I have also pointed out before, Vincent is not a bad player and will surely get better with experience but he is still very raw (e.g. I dont think I have seen him lift his head up before a single cross). Jones is still young and cheap but already a national team veteran for T&T, more versatile, very good on set pieces and was already a proven talent. I still maintain that trading him was a terrible move.

  • In reply to Carl Miller:

    +1 as do I

  • In reply to Carl Miller:

    The biggest upside for Jones was his minimal impact on the salary cap. There was nothing special about the quality of his play. If Paunovic projected that Vincent would turn out to be a better player than Jones, then the deals that Rodriguez made on draft day to get both Vincent and Campbell were worth sacrificing Jones.

  • In reply to Carl Miller:

    I disagree that trading Jones was bad. I thought it was smart to off load an inconsistent player who was asking for a raise and occupying an international roster spot. The second half of his season with the Fire was mediocre at best.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to AJties:

    So was the rest of the team's. Everyone likes to conveniently forget that. He's not going to shine on a sh*t team while playing LB. The second half of the season he had less impact because he spent more time defending. Anyone who watches T&T play can see he is one of the best players on the team. You could argue that LB is not his ideal position though as he is more valuable in the attack. FYI, he never got a raise after moving to seattle.

    StaryByk3, the statment, "There was nothing special about the quality of his play." is just a completely farcical statement.

  • In reply to Carl Miller:

    Jones was pretty good lending a hand to the Fire's attack by providing width. But his biggest problem area was understanding how to defend. His inability to track his man when the attacker ran into space was not very good. He gave far too much space to the opponent's wide players and was often guilty of ball-watching.

    I prefer that defenders be good at defense first. This is why I think that Jones was nothing special and certainly replaceable.

  • In reply to Carl Miller:

    I definitely didn't forget how poorly the team played the second half of last season. Just like I haven't forgotten the times JJ left someone wide open on a corner kick. You make it sound like they traded Jordi Alba. I'll admit I haven't watched many T&T games, but I imagine they werent playing France and Germany in these games he aledgedly played so well in. There are plenty of moves to criticize that NR has made. Trading JJ is not one of them. Fullbacks need to defend first. JJ was terrible at defending.

  • In reply to AJties:

    And just because he didnt get a raise doesnt mean he didnt ask for ine from us. How many other players took pay cuts to play on other teams? That Magee guy, Big Red...

  • Gilberto reportedly offered to Vasco. Salary an issue.....

    http://www.oreporter.com/Vasco-estuda-a-contratacao-do-atacante-Gilberto,14648298970.htm

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