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.