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.
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".
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.