Improving central midfield was a priority for the Chicago Fire this offseason. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said as much shortly after the 2016 season ended and then delivered with the additions of former MLS All-Stars Juninho and Dax McCarty.
Both are proven, experienced MLS midfielders who will be expected to start. The question then becomes what happens to Matt Polster?
Polster was a finalist for Rookie of the Year in 2015 after emerging as a defensive midfielder who was capable of breaking up plays and making the numerous chasing runs asked of that position. He logged more than 2,000 minutes in each of his first two MLS seasons and was a part of the American Olympic qualifying team last year.
Suddenly a 23-year-old who was building up a nice resume for a somewhat young MLS player is looking at potentially being used off the bench or as a rotation player in 2017 with two well-paid central midfielders now ahead of him on the depth chart.
"I think I just have to go into the preseason and do my best to show that I should be on the field just like any other player should," Polster said on Monday. "I think there's a lot of competition at every position so it's going to raise my game and I think in everybody else's aspect it's going to raise their game as well."
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Coach Veljko Paunovic always preaches the value of versatility in players and Polster does have some of that. He played at right back on occasion during his rookie year. That was also the position he played with the Olympic qualifying team due to a glut of central midfielders and a lack of options at outside back on that roster.
Right back appears to be a position of need for the Fire since Rodrigo Ramos was not retained and no replacement have been signed yet. However, during the first week of training there has been no indication that Polster will be used at right back. He has trained with the midfielders when the defenders have been separated in certain drills.
"I think in general the adaptable nature of how Pauno views the game favors anyone who can adjust and either play multiple positions or interpret roles in different ways," Rodriguez said when asked about Polster. "I think Matt we have to remember is still a young player, only two years as a pro, but he continues to have a very bright future and I would say he has a very bright present. When and where he plays will be entirely up to how his performance is adjudged."
This will be the first time since Polster initially won his starting job early in his rookie season that he will be pushed for playing time. He quickly asserted himself as a starter in 2015, coming off the bench in the season opener and then starting the next 13 matches.
Paunovic and Rodriguez could be watching to see how Polster responds to this test or they may have a way to get all three central midfielders on the field at the same time. This early in the preseason there has been no indication from Paunovic about how the team will line up, but that will be something to follow as the preseason unfolds.
On Monday, when the players had entrance physicals a day before the first training session Polster said he hadn't talked with the Fire staff about what they have planned for him. For now, Polster is saying the right things.
"I think the biggest thing is I think there's a lot of competition now at just about every position so I think it's going to make the sessions a lot tougher, a lot more competitive and I think it's going to raise the level of the team," Polster said. "I think you'll see that once the season begins."