On the same night that Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam showed marked progress in their returns from lingering injuries, another key member of the Men In Red seemingly fell victim to a potentially serious injury in Saturday's 1-1 draw vs. New York City FC.
Attacking midfielder Michael de Leeuw, whose work rate and team-first mentality have been a source of dependability for the Fire throughout 2017, found himself in a knee-to-knee collision at midfield with NYCFC's Yangel Herrera in the 27th minute. The Dutchman was helped off the pitch by the medical team and, after the game, his coaches and teammates expressed concern about the severity of the damage.
"Michael's injury doesn't look good," Veljko Paunovic told media members after the match. "All the locker room is feeling that. It's not good, obviously we have to do an MRI tomorrow and see what's the diagnosis of the injury but it doesn't look good. Everyone is a little bit concerned."
The injury's effect on the game was apparent and altered Paunovic's tactics and man-management for the second half.
"Michael's injury was a very hard moment in the game for us," he said, "and we couldn't adjust to what we needed for the rest of the game, which was pace, everything he was doing, aggressiveness. We just couldn't raise the level."
After recording seven goals and three assists in a half-season last year, de Leeuw's offensive role has changed and his numbers inverted on the new-look Fire roster, with three goals and eight assists in 30 matches this season -- including two assists in Wednesday's 4-1 playoff-clinching victory at San Jose.
While Pauno has a number of options who can capably fill the minutes once reserved for de Leeuw, the Dutchman's intuitive playmaking, tenacity and fiery brand of leadership will be difficult to replace like-for-like in the two remaining regular season matches and playoffs, should he be sidelined that long.
"It's very sad, I mean you could see, I think, that the injury is quite bad," said Schweinsteiger. "I wish him all the best, he was in a good shape, he was always working very, very hard for the team and we need this kind of attitude in our game. It's sad for us and you only can wish him all the best and a quick recovery."