Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Matt Polster's influence on the Fire

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Matt Polster's influence on the Fire

There were plenty of reasons for the Fire's losing ways since returning from the Gold Cup break.

A few of them still exist, but Matt Polster's return from injury appeared on Saturday to be one of the keys in the Fire's win in Montreal. Was Polster's absence that important to the Fire and now that he's back will the team go on a winning run?

Here's a look at that, plus an apparent change in philosophy from coach Veljko Paunovic.

Polster's influence on the Fire

It's easy to be drawn to the big play Polster made to set up Bastian Schweinsteiger's goal. He dribbled around a defender to get to the end line and picked his head up to find Schweinsteiger in the box. (It's also worth noting where Schweinsteiger is at the start of the play, near where the ball to Polster is played from, and where he winds up to get on the end of that ball.)

This is the kind of play Polster can make as a right back. He doesn't have traditional right back instincts or skills. He isn't going to put aerial crosses on a dime, but he can make a pass on the ground to hit a teammate.

Polster also nearly created an own goal with another low cross that seemed innocuous in the 10th minute, but was deflected towards the goal in an attempt to clear the ball.

Those two plays were highlights, although the near own goal was more about luck than anything else. Polster didn't make many other standout contributions. He completed 36 of 43 passes (84 percent). Defensively, he was quiet statistically with three clearances and two ball recoveries.

When Polster plays, the Fire get better results. As Matt Doyle wrote for MLSsoccer.com, the Fire are 10-3-2 when Polster plays and 3-6-3 when he doesn't. There's definite correlation here, but proving causality is another issue.

For one, Polster missed the beginning of the year when the Fire did not yet have Schweinsteiger and when the team was still figuring out its attack. His first appearance of the season was a substitute appearance in the 4-0 win against Seattle on May 13. At the time, that felt like a breakout win for the Fire and Polster's role was minimal in that game. The Fire led 2-0 before he entered and he didn't factor into either of the two goals that came after.

He then took over a starting spot when the Fire got hot. However, he also started three losses in the recent slump. In other words, the Fire's hot streak started just before Polster got back and the cold streak started before he got hurt.

So while Polster and fellow full back Brandon Vincent have the best plus-minus on the team (to steal a hockey stat) at plus-18, Polster's return alone won't solve the Fire's problems. Looking simply at the numbers, Vincent, who came off the bench on Saturday, might have a better argument as one of the team's most important players. Vincent last played in Portland, which was the last game in the Fire's 11-game MLS unbeaten run. He went down with an injury and the Fire went 1-6.

The return of three regular starters to the defense was always likely to result in an uptick in the Fire's play. While Joao Meira was still out, it appears Vincent is on track to rejoin Polster in the starting lineup next weekend. That should improve the defense, and the attack somewhat. However, even with Polster back the Fire managed just two shots on target. A solid defensive performance (at least after Montreal attempted eight shots in the first 25 minutes) and a red card in the second half paved the way for a Fire win.

A change in philosophy?

There wasn't much in the postgame quote sheet, but the only quote from Paunovic was telling.

"With 11 men we knew what we had to do: work hard, help each other, be organized and defend the result," Paunovic said.

That defend the result part is different from Paunovic. This is the same coach who has talked about going after the second or third goal to add to a lead. Now Paunovic is talking about defending a result? That's a first.

Perhaps Paunovic is becoming more pragmatic after a year and a half in the league. Maybe it was simply due to matchup. Being aggressive with the lead, even with a man advantage, would open up the Fire to Montreal's bread and butter, the counter.

The Fire did sit back after taking the lead. Montreal had the majority of the possession for the final 20 minutes, including each of the final four five-minute segments as the league website breaks it down.

Whatever the reason, this was new in Paunovic's tenure with the Fire.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.