Matt Polster

2018 Fire preview: Defenders and goalkeepers

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USA TODAY

2018 Fire preview: Defenders and goalkeepers

For all the deserved focus on the additions of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic, the Fire’s defense also took a solid step forward in 2017.

The Fire went from allowing 58 goals in each of the previous two seasons, which was tied with Orlando (an expansion team for the first of those two years) for the most goals allowed in the league over that span, to surrendering 47 in 2017. The 47 goals allowed tied for sixth fewest in the league.

The additions of McCarty and Schweinsteiger (and the now departed Juninho) helped to protect the defense from the onslaught of pressure it faced in 2016, but the defenders themselves also took steps forward. At left back Brandon Vincent turned into a solid starter after struggling in his rookie season. When options at right back looked bleak, Matt Polster turned into a revelation at the position and has earned national team call-ups. Neither Vincent nor Polster are without weaknesses, but added steady play to positions that had been major weaknesses.

The Fire also return center back Johan Kappelhof, easily the team’s best defender the past two seasons and an All-Star in 2017.

Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)

Johan Kappelhof (33 games played, 33 starts, 2,881 minutes, 4 assists)

Brandon Vincent (27 GP, 26 GS, 2,341 minutes, 2 goals, 5 assists)

Matt Polster (22 GP, 21 GS, 1,769 minutes, 1 goal, 7 assists)

Jonathan Campbell (24 GP, 8 GS, 1,009 minutes)

Christian Dean (3 GP, 2 GS, 220 minutes)

Jorge Corrales (signed with Fire on Sept. 14 but remained with Tulsa)

Newcomers

Rafael Ramos (trade with Orlando)

Grant Lillard (homegrown signing)

The three returning starters appear set to be staples again in 2018. The other center back spot next to Kappelhof is up in the air, but injuries appear to have given Christian Dean the first crack at it. Dean and fellow lefty Lillard appeared to be the favorites for the spot until Lillard suffered a knee injury in preseason that has kept Lillard out for a couple weeks. Campbell, who led the Fire in minutes as a rookie in 2016 and then lost his starting job to the now departed Joao Meira last year, is out for at least the first month of the season due to a facial fracture. Lillard is expected to be back soon, but Dean will in all likelihood start the opener against Sporting Kansas City.

Lillard could be an upgraded depth option, but may not be an impact rookie. Ramos gives the Fire improved depth at fullback and could be valuable given Polster’s past of knee injury flare ups.

Goalkeepers

The players behind the defenders will have a more different look than the defenders. Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland return, but don’t bring much MLS experience to the table. Sanchez made two starts with the Fire last season as an in-season replacement once it was known Jorge Bava would miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury. Matt Lampson is also gone and is now starting for Minnesota.

The Fire still don’t have the typical three goalkeepers under contract, but Patrick McLain, the No. 3 in 2016, has been trialing with the team and played in the second half of Saturday’s preseason finale at Toyota Park.

As it stands, it’s a younger, less experienced group than what the Fire had in previous years with Sean Johnson and then Lampson and Bava in net, but having a more proven defense will help. Sanchez is likely the starter, but he has had an elbow injury that kept him out of action Saturday and has limited him in training. Cleveland, a second-round pick a year ago who hasn't appeared in an MLS match, could start the opener.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.

Fire defenders Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent called up to national team

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USA TODAY

Fire defenders Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent called up to national team

When the U.S. men missed the World Cup, it had a massive effect on many aspects of the game in this country, but two Fire players felt that in a more specific way.

Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent had both received call-ups to the January camp in 2016 and had breakout years of sorts in 2017. Both even had an outside shot of going to the World Cup, that is if the team had qualified.

Instead, both will have to put their sights on the 2022 edition and working their way into the team before then. Polster and Vincent both got called in to this year's version of the January camp, the annual, mostly domestic-based training camp during the MLS offseason.

Vincent received his first cap in the camp in 2016 in a friendly against Canada. Polster was in the camp, but didn't play. Polster was brought in to train with the Under-23 Olympic qualifying team, which also failed to qualify.

Former Fire coach Dave Sarachan will be the coach for the camp. Sarachan is a holdover from Bruce Arena's coaching staff and is in charge while the federation waits to name a replacement. With no competitive games on the schedule in 2018, there is no rush to hire a coach and waiting for the World Cup to end will give the U.S. more candidates to choose from.

After the qualifying failure, Polster said he held out hopes of forcing his way into the World Cup roster.

“The ultimate goal was that they’d qualify and hopefully I could make January camp and then I could turn some heads,” he said in October. “That was my thought process and I really wanted to give it a go. Hopefully I can do what I can to maybe help and be a part of it one day.”

Polster, 24, had shown positive signs in his first two seasons, but lacked consistency while playing in central midfield. This season he moved to right back, a position he played with the Olympic qualifying team, and was a revelation at the position for the Fire. His athletic ability and stamina made him a good fit for the position, although his positioning and crossing ability need improvement.

Vincent, 23, improved upon a rough rookie season to become a key cog at left back for the Fire. Both players benefit from playing at a position that the national team is not deep at, but that is especially true for Vincent, a naturally left-footed player. Left back has been a difficult position to fill for the national team for decades.

Players will report to the camp in California on Jan. 10. A friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina is scheduled for Jan. 28 at the StubHub Center, home of the LA Galaxy. As a result, both players are expected to miss the first portion of the Fire's preseason.