Matt Polster 'finally happy now' after return to the field

Matt Polster 'finally happy now' after return to the field

Matt Polster waited a long time for Saturday night.

The Chicago Fire's third-year player made his season debut after a knee injury suffered in the second week of the preseason and later setbacks kept him out of game action until he came off the bench for the final 19 minutes against the Seattle Sounders.

Polster did so at right back, a position he didn't play last season, but has played before. He completed 16 of 17 passes and drew a pair of fouls while the Fire added two insurance goals in the 4-1 win.

"It’s exciting to get back on the field and I just feel like I’m finally happy now," Polster said. "I feel like I’ve worked really hard to get to this point and I’m just happy I’m here and healthy again and available to be on the field.”

Polster suffered what the team called a sprained left knee during preseason training on Feb. 2. He was initially expected to be out seven weeks and appeared to be reasonably close to that projection when he returned to training in late March. He was seen running and completing individual passing drills in training on March 21.

On April 15, Polster was available as a substitute against New England, but did not play. Then he suffered a setback while he tried to regain his fitness. Polster had a right hip injury and was out for the next three games before finally playing against Seattle.

Right back isn't a new position to Polster, who played center back in college before moving to defensive midfield as a pro. Polster also played some right back during his rookie season and when he played with the Olympic qualifying team last year.

"I have some experience with it," Polster said. "I think there will be moments where I might look like I haven’t done it, but I think if I get enough experience with it and get used to it I think I can definitely play that position.”

Michael Harrington began the season as the starter at right back, but Drew Conner started at the LA Galaxy. Conner again started against Seattle before Polster replaced him. Those three figure to be competing for that spot for the forseeable future.

“We were working on our improvement in our backline on the right back," coach Veljko Paunovic said. "We were also talking with [Polster] in playing that position in the last couple of months, but as he got the setback with his injury he needed more time. We were working on his fitness. We were working also on preparing him so when the moment comes he was ready. I think [Saturday] he did very well."

Getting minutes at Polster's previous position in central midfield won't be easy. The trio of newcomers, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho will be very difficult to unseat. All three have made every start when they are healthy and available.

If Polster is limited to minutes at right back this year, he won't mind the position change, if it sticks.

“I think it’s definitely easier than central midfield," Polster said. "I think when you get the ball you have everything in front of you. You don’t really have to worry about something behind you, it’s just the [offside] line itself. For me I find it easier because I have everything in front of me. I’m able to pick my pass and I know what I’m going to do pretty early before I get it.”

Polster said this in front of the Fire's starting left back, Brandon Vincent, so Vincent was roped into the conversation. Vincent gave everyone a laugh with his response as to whether playing outside back is easier than central midfield as Polster said.

“It is," Vincent said. "That’s why I don’t play it.”


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.