Johan Kappelhof’s return a key training-camp story for Fire

The longest-tenured Fire player, Kappelhof gives coach Raphael Wicky options if he’s healthy.

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Johan Kappelhof could be a key player for the Fire this season.

Courtesy of the Fire

Compared to the winter of 2019-20, the Fire had a quiet offseason. They added three players who will be on the 2021 team and saw only two high-profile exits as Djordje Mihailovic (Montreal) and CJ Sapong (Nashville) left the club. 

That doesn’t mean training camp won’t have storylines. Here are three topics to monitor when the Fire begin full training Monday:

Johan Kappelhof

The longest-tenured Fire player, Kappelhof was something of a forgotten man last year. Because of injuries, Kappelhof played only 20 minutes after starting the first two games, and there was some thought that his time in Chicago was up. But even though he was left unprotected for the Austin FC expansion draft, Kappelhof apparently is in the plans for 2021.

“He will give us a lot of possibilities,” coach Raphael Wicky said. “He’s an experienced guy and a good player. I really hope he’s going to stay healthy, and he’s going to [give] competition to all of the players, for sure.”

A healthy Kappelhof would immediately be the Fire’s best central defender and could push captain Francisco Calvo to left back or Mauricio Pineda further up the field. Wicky could play with three center backs in a three- or five-man back line and use the trio together that way. Though it’s not his favored position, Kappelhof did well at right back in 2019 and could start there if youngster Jhon Espinoza isn’t ready and veteran Boris Sekulic underwhelms.

In goal . . .

Goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm will be involved in preseason training but still isn’t fully fit after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee on July 30. With Kronholm not 100%, the experienced Bobby Shuttleworth enters camp atop the depth chart after a strong 2020 season.

“Right now, Kenny is still injured for me, in my plans, so Bobby is the No. 1,” Wicky said. “Once we have everyone back, then we will re-evaluate the situation.”

Depending on Kronholm’s recovery, the Fire could begin the regular season with Chris Brady (turns 17 on March 3) or Gabriel Slonina (16) backing up Shuttleworth, who’s 33. 

“We made this choice together, at the end of the [2020] season, and said we are going to go with Bobby, with Kenny and with the two young kids [we believe in],” Wicky said. 

The pandemic

Once again, the Fire are gearing up for the mental grind of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic while playing high-level professional soccer.

“We all did a really good job with it last year,’’ Pineda said. ‘‘It came from the coaching staff being flexible and preparing for every game that we had and being ready for it knowing that other things might happen that are out of our control. Hopefully we can do the same thing this year and just continue with that same mentality and approach every game, hoping that we play. If not, then it’s OK, and we’ll be ready for the next one.”

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