After enduring a slump that coincided with three injuries to starters in the Fire’s defense, the team is starting to see the return of those players.
Matt Polster missed three games with a left knee injury, a recurring injury that has bothered him dating back to last year, before returning in last weekend’s win in Montreal. Brandon Vincent missed seven games with a quad injury and came off the bench for the final minutes.
“It felt good to kind of get that first breath in a real game situation, just for mentality wise, for competing back with the group,” Vincent said after training on Wednesday.
Polster assisted on the only goal of the game in Montreal, setting up Bastian Schweinsteiger for the game-winner. Polster said he continues to feel more comfortable at right back, partially due to the role being “much more defined.”
During his absence, Polster noticed some issues in the Fire’s losing streak.
“I thought our movement off the ball was lacking a little bit in that stretch and we weren’t really showing up for each other,” he said. “I think as a group we all stated that. We all came to terms with saying that we weren’t showing up for each other and we weren’t making those runs. I thought in the Montreal game we were all moving, we were moving off the ball and trying to get off the ball and show for each other.”
Polster has made his return to the starting lineup, but Vincent is still waiting for that. Vincent came on as an injury replacement for Patrick Doody in the 89th minute in Montreal. With Doody, who filled in while Vincent was out, missing practice this week it is expected that Vincent will start against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
The Fire went 1-6 without Vincent right after going unbeaten for 11 straight in MLS. Vincent sees the connection, but doesn’t want to look at it like that.
“I guess it’s easy when people miss time to kind of try to draw some correlations and stuff like that,” Vincent said. “I try not to pay too much attention to it. I think the group went through a little bit of a down streak and I don’t consider myself separate from the group when I’m not playing. We’re all together in this. We all went through a down streak, we bounced back and now we’re looking to rebound and pick up some steam going into the playoffs.”
His injury occurred in warmups before the Fire played at New York City FC on July 22. The Stanford product had never dealt with an injury of that severity.
“I’ve never had any sort of muscle strain or tear or anything like that so I didn’t know what to expect, which was really scary when it happened because the pain was pretty sharp and it was just a really uncomfortable feeling that I was worried about,” Vincent said. “A lot of emotions when I came out.”
Vincent said everything is normal now and the muscle is healed, but he is working with the training staff to manage his workload to “be smart about” his return.
The first game he missed was the first one after the Gold Cup break. The 2-1 loss in Yankee Stadium was the start of a slump that saw the Fire go from contending for the Supporters’ Shield to falling into the thick of the race just to get into the playoffs.
Joao Meira, another starting defender, has missed three games since going down in the opening minutes in the Fire’s first trip to Montreal on August 16. Coach Veljko Paunovic stayed optimistic about the team’s prospects while the three were out and praised the play of Doody and Drew Conner as replacements, but admitted the injured trio was missed.
“When you go back, you see our performance since we start to lose our back line, starting with Brandon in New York City,” Paunovic said. “It was really frustrating. So it goes now in the opposite way. When you have them back it helps the team to find that performance that we had before that.“