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With milestone in reach, Johan Kappelhof looking for stronger Fire defense

The Fire's Johan Kappelhof defends against Orlando City's Nani during a game in Bridgeview. | Courtesy of Chicago Fire Soccer Club

The Fire’s game Saturday at Toronto FC looms as a milestone for defender Johan Kappelhof. Acquired in 2016 from Dutch team FC Groningen, it will be his 100th regular-season appearance for the Fire. And he has been a starter in 97 of those first 99 games.

“Three years, 100 games, it’s not easy,’’ Kappelhof said. ‘‘I’m proud of that and thankful that I get the opportunity every week to play, and the coaches, the fans, everybody believes in me. That makes me very proud and makes me eager to give more to the team.

“I still can give more, and I haven’t reached my limit. I will continue giving my all, and hopefully 100 more games [are] coming.”

Kappelhof and the Fire also hope more good team performances are forthcoming.

Before the game last week against the Red Bulls, the Fire had allowed seven goals in three games.

Without being asked about it during the introductory news conference for attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan, coach Veljko Paunovic even discussed how the signing would help the Fire shut down their opponents.

Then against New York, the Fire allowed only one shot on target in a 1-0 victory. Normally a center back, Kappelhof moved to the right to help shut down the Red Bulls’ counterattack, while Bastian Schweinsteiger dropped to the back line and Jeremiah Gutjahr successfully debuted at left back.

“It felt good [to keep] a clean sheet,” Kappelhof said. “That’s what you want as a defender.”

Kappelhof and the back line will be tested again by Toronto FC (3-0-0, nine points). Despite selling 2015 league MVP Sebastian Giovinco during the offseason to a Saudi Arabian club, TFC’s attack is still strong. In only three games, they lead the Eastern Conference with 10 goals and are coming off a 4-0 rout of New York City FC.

Clearly, TFC will put the Fire’s defensive structure and posture to the test.

“I’m not nervous about our back line,” Kappelhof said. “We have to continue believing in ourselves. We know we can do it. Sometimes it doesn’t work out well. If you drop your head, you will concede more goals.”

That’s a lesson the Fire (1-2-1, four points) learned the hard way to start the season. Though they could claim they deserved more than a point from their first two games, there was no argument about their performance in a 4-2 loss to Seattle that raised even more questions about the back line and the team in general.

Kappelhof didn’t enjoy that day and knew the whole team had to improve.

“Defense starts up front,’’ Kappelhof said. ‘‘It’s the whole team that has to do better. If the defense up front is not good enough, you’ll get more pressure on the back line. It’s hard to blame only the back line or the people up front. It’s a team, so we have to do it all together. Everybody has to do his part.”