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


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, 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.

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.