When Johan Kappelhof was made available to Austin FC in the expansion draft, it seemed to confirm suspicions the veteran central defender wasn’t in the blueprint for the 2021 Fire.
Due to injuries, Kappelhof played only 200 minutes, with just 20 coming after the first two games of the 2020 season. Combined with his age (30), high salary ($577,833.29 in 2019, per the MLS Players Association) and other options at his position, Kappelhof looked like a player the Fire might move. But Kappelhof said he met with coach Raphael Wicky after last season and was told the Fire weren’t planning to deal him away.
Now with the regular season a month away, Kappelhof is back for his sixth year and competing for a spot in the starting 11.
“The fact that I was not protected for the draft, I think it’s pretty understandable,” Kappelhof said. “I was injured the whole season. I don’t think there was a big chance that Austin would trade [for] me or wanted me. It’s completely understandable, and this is for me a season to show myself again and to prove myself, show myself what I did in the past to have a good year again, and I’m looking forward to it.”
A healthy Kappelhof showing what he can do would be a big boost for the Fire.
Though he prefers playing as a central defender, Kappelhof played well at right back in 2019. He could even play as a defensive-minded midfielder, and that versatility gives Wicky and the technical staff options that could have positive ramifications throughout the lineup.
Though it’s unclear how Wicky will use him in 2021, it’s obvious that Kappelhof, the team’s longest-tenured player, was missed last season as the Fire made defensive mistakes at the worst times that helped keep them out of the playoffs.
“I think Johan has been a really important player for this club in the past years, and of course now that he’s healthy we are really glad,” said captain Francisco Calvo, who was expected to be Kappelhof’s partner in central defense last year. “We are really glad he’s back on the field, having him training full-time with us, and I think he’s going to just put his quality into the team, his leadership into the team, and the team is going to get improved if all the guys are healthy and training with us every day.”
Despite spending limited time playing in it, Kappelhof thinks Wicky’s scheme meshes with his style of play. Besides, there are some qualities that fit in any plan, and Kappelhof’s steadiness and versatility are among them.
“He likes to [play] like good football, build it from the back where it’s possible, and he likes energetic football, like runs without the ball and a lot of energy,” Kappelhof said. “You have to put a lot of energy in your game. You have to press and be ready for duels. I think that fits my style of play.”