Montreal Impact

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.

In beating Montreal, Fire get most important win of the season

In beating Montreal, Fire get most important win of the season

As the Fire's losing streak continued, the chasing playoff pack got closer and closer in the standings.

The Fire entered Saturday’s match in Montreal in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and only five points ahead of the Impact, currently in seventh place, and Montreal had a game in hand. Simply earning a draw on the road to prevent a close playoff rival from gaining ground would have been a very positive result for the Fire. The 1-0 win they got? That’s the most important one of the season so far.

Bastian Schweinsteiger came up with the goal less than 10 minutes after Montreal’s Deian Boldor was given a red card, which required video review. Matt Polster, who made his first appearance since Aug. 12, had the assist on the play.

“It’s massive for us to get back into the flow of things and get back on that right path of winning and trying to hit (our) stride in the playoffs,” Polster said on the CSN+ broadcast.

It wasn't a pretty performance. The Fire's issues in the attack were still present with just two shots on target, but the defense held up, even surviving an 80th minute shot off the post by Ignacio Piatti.

The Fire ended a four-game losing streak, leaped ahead of Columbus to take over third place again and are now eight points above the playoff line. Another big one is at Toyota Park next week when the fifth-place New York Red Bulls come to town, but, for now, the Fire are back in the win column and have some separation above the teams below them.

This is the third road win of the year for the Fire and it is the best team the Fire have beaten away from home.

Polster wasn’t the only player to return. Brandon Vincent came on as a sub in the 89th minute to replace a cramping Patrick Doody. Vincent hadn’t played since July 5.

David Accam missed the match with an ankle injury. Accam has been nursing a hip injury in recent weeks and has been leaving training early in an effort to ease the workload on his body.

With no Accam, Dax McCarty (national team duty), Joao Meira and Vincent still only coming off the bench, the Fire delivered three points against an also shorthanded Montreal team which was missing six players due to international call-ups.

The Fire still may not catch New York City FC, which is three points ahead of the Fire with a game in hand, for second place and a first-round bye. At least now, the Fire’s playoff spot once again appears secure and a home playoff game in the first round is more likely than it was before tonight.

Injuries racking up and causing chaos for the Fire

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USA TODAY

Injuries racking up and causing chaos for the Fire

It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed everything was breaking the Chicago Fire’s way.

The Fire’s 11-match unbeaten run from April into early July featured of plenty of impressive performances from the Fire, but also a few lucky breaks. Dallas rested most of its starting lineup when it came to Toyota Park, Atlanta brought its two best players off the bench when it played in Bridgeview, New England couldn’t get a result against the Fire despite pouring on 24 shots.

It seems that luck is evening out a bit. The Fire dropped a fourth straight game on the road on Wednesday in Montreal and, while sloppy play was evident for the second game in a row, a rash of injuries to the back line played a role in the loss.

Left back Brandon Vincent has been out since picking up a quad injury in the warmups before a July 5 game in Portland. Right back Matt Polster suffered a left knee injury this week in training and did not travel to Montreal. On top of that, Joao Meira, who was listed as questionable for the game with a calf injury, left five minutes in with an injury. That’s not a recipe for success.

Christian Dean, acquired by the Fire seven days ago, had to make his debut as an injury replacement five minutes into a game. His center back partner, Jonathan Campbell, was making his first start since April 8. Johan Kappelhof had slid over to right back to fill in for Polster.

The resulting chaos shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dean’s first touch as a Fire player was a clearance that he didn’t cleanly hit. Ignacio Piatti blocked it with his chest and was suddenly open in the box for an early goal.

A Matteo Mancosu penalty and an incredible curling shot from outside the box by Piatti within a minute of each other put the game away before the first half was over. It finished 3-0.

Injuries aren’t things that have good timing, but this definitely qualifies as poor timing as far as the Fire are concerned. Being shorthanded against a Montreal team that may be playing as well as it has all season wasn’t good. On top of that, the Fire host league-leading Toronto.

That game against Toronto had been circled by MLS fans as a meeting of two of the top teams in the league, but the Fire’s recent slide (four losses in the last five matches) has taken some of the luster off it. Toronto is six points ahead of the third-place Fire.

In one final note, Wednesday’s game was the first MLS start for 18-year-old Djordje Mihailovic. He played 82 minutes before being subbed out.