Michael de Leeuw's rise from bottling Coke to captaining the Chicago Fire
It doesn't take much for Michael de Leeuw to appreciate his life as a professional soccer player. All he has to do is think back to the jobs he had in his late teenage years, when his soccer career looked to be going nowhere, for gratitude to cover him like a warm blanket.
One job had him working in a factory wrapping boxes in plastic. Then there was the time he spent filling out paperwork in the office of a property appraiser. The best job? That was when De Leeuw worked in a Coca-Cola factory in the Dutch town of Dongen, where he was responsible for making sure the ratio of sugar to water was just right.
"There were so many colas, you think one bottle and it's done," he told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. "But you've got Vanilla, you've got Zero, there's a lot of bottles. And I [worked at] different times. One week I'd work from 7:00 until 3:00, the second it was from 3:00 until 11:00 and then from 11:00 until 7:00.
"I know how it is on the other side, to work from 9:00 until 5:00, so I appreciate every day what I do. I couldn't be happier to have reached this [level]."
That level these days sees the 30-year-old De Leeuw playing as an attacking midfielder for a revamped Chicago Fire side that looks to be emerging from a painful four-year funk. Through two matches, the Fire have accumulated four points, despite not playing a complete game yet.
"We still have to evolve our game plan, the way we play, and try to do it for 90 minutes," he said. "Now next week against Atlanta, they won 6-1 so they are confident like us. For us, the start is great, very good."
De Leeuw's play and leadership since arriving last summer have been such that manager Veljko Paunovic made the midfielder one of his captains this season. And to hear Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez describe it, De Leeuw strikes a good balance of saying what needs to be said while doing it in positive way. His work habits are also beyond reproach.
"On a daily basis he punches the clock with maximum effort," Rodriguez said. "We use a phrase, 'He's a giver,' and all of those things are really obvious. When you watch him play, watch him train just for a short amount of time, you see consistency."
De Leeuw's direct communication style was evident when assessing last year's team. He indicated that the Fire players were "too nice," both to each other and opponents. But that vibe appears to have changed this season. The additions of midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho have given the Fire more bite than they had in the past, as well as more leadership in a critical part of the field.
"They are exactly the guys that we needed," De Leeuw said about McCarty and Juninho. "They are leaders. In the locker room sometimes things have to be said, and they will say it. It's also the quality they bring to the game. They are smart, they know when to press. That's what we noticed in the games.
"Maybe last season, that game against Salt Lake where the second half was not good, we would have drawn that game. Now we just do it nice and mature. We just play the game, don't concede a goal. We scored two goals, that's enough and we take the three points."
De Leeuw's path to the professional ranks is one that has been taken by a select few. In Europe, by the time a player reaches 17, the dreams of playing professionally have either begun to crystallize or fallen apart. Those with dreams still intact are usually in the ranks of professional clubs, ready to climb the ladder with hope of one day breaking into the first team.
Yet at that age, De Leeuw thought a pro career was already beyond him. He had just left school, and a life spent working and playing in what he called "mid-level amateur" soccer with his friends in his home city of Tilburg seemed inevitable.
"I never thought I'd be a professional player," De Leeuw said. "When I'd watch on television or go to games, those players were heroes for me."
It was in 2007, at age 20, that De Leeuw's life took a drastic turn. Marco de Ruiter -- who at the time was the reserve team coach with Eredivisie side Willem II and is now a youth coach in Salt Lake City -- got a tip telling him to take a look at a forward who was scoring a lot of goals in the Derde Klasse, which at the time constituted the sixth tier of the Dutch soccer pyramid. That forward was De Leeuw, and De Ruiter came away impressed.
"I saw from the beginning that the one thing De Leeuw is very good at -- because he's not very tall -- is he's very smart, his runs tactically are phenomenal," De Ruiter told ESPN FC via telephone while vacationing in Barbados. "That's how he scores his goals. And he's very strong in the air, his heading skills are unbelievable. You wouldn't say that if you see him, because he's not big, not really strong, but he has very good timing with heading goals and with his attacking runs."
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But convincing his bosses to sign De Leeuw, even to a reserve team contract, wasn't the easiest sell for De Ruiter. De Leeuw had never played for any academies of professional clubs, and De Ruiter said the level that the forward was playing at was similar to an adult league in the United States.
"I had a lot of people who advised me not to do it," De Ruiter said.
De Ruiter still took the plunge, though the doubters initially looked to be correct. De Leeuw spent the first three months at Willem II injured, unable to cope with the increased physical demands. But he eventually found his health and his form, and validated De Ruiter's assessment. De Ruiter was also struck by De Leeuw's mentality, especially in front of goal.
"I have worked with players who were technically so much better at that age, but they were very nervous when it was an important game or when it was a big stadium," De Ruiter said. "They were always questioning themselves. But Michael, he was mentally very, very strong. You need that to be a goal scorer and a striker, someone that has no fear and no doubt when he's in front of the goal."
De Ruiter might have been won over, but De Leeuw never did overcome the skepticism of Willem II management. After playing in the reserves for two years, they didn't think De Leeuw's game would translate to the Dutch top flight. So, at De Ruiter's urging, De Leeuw dropped down a level to second-tier side SC Veendam.
"De Ruiter told me, 'Michael, you have to take one step back to take two steps forward,'" De Leeuw recalled.
So it was at age 22 that De Leeuw made his first-team debut with a professional side. The move proved wildly successful. He was the Eerste Divisie's top scorer in 2011-12 with 25 goals, and he ultimately parlayed that success to spots in Holland's Eredivisie, first with De Graafschap, and later Groningen.
"I had the dream to be a professional player, but you never think you can make it," De Leeuw said. "The closer it gets, the harder I was working, and at the end when I was 22, I gave everything. I had some injuries, I had some bad luck. But it was good I had bad luck, because I wouldn't be sitting here."
De Leeuw's journey to Chicago was also unexpected. Rodriguez recalled how the team was in the process of scouting -- and ultimately signing -- Groningen defender Johan Kappelhof when De Leeuw kept catching the organization's eye.
"It started innocently enough. 'Did you notice that guy? Yeah, he had a pretty good game. He works both sides of the ball pretty well,'" Rodriguez recalled. "We completed the deal for Johan, and we kept getting drawn back to tracking and watching Michael. When we asked Johan about Michael, he had good things to say about his character and his personality, and our interest just grew from there."
A bid to bring De Leeuw in at the start of the 2016 season was unsuccessful, but he joined up during the summer transfer window and proved adaptable by scoring seven goals while adding two assists. In terms of why De Leeuw left his home country for life in MLS, he insisted that he was just looking for something new.
"The adventure, the adventure of going to an away game in an airplane," he said. "In Holland, it's smaller than Illinois, so you do everything on the bus. The time difference, the weather conditions everywhere, I thought, 'That's an adventure.' Plus the players who are playing in this league, it's a big bonus."
De Leeuw now finds himself light years away from the Coca-Cola factory in Dongen, though he insisted he has fond memories of the place.
"If I'm done with playing, I'm going to be asking if I could work there again," he said.
But for now, De Leeuw plans to enjoy the life of a professional athlete for a while longer
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.