Veljko Paunovic’s Chicago Fire squad displayed plenty of heart and a will to win on numerous occasions Sunday at Providence Park, rallying from a 2-1 halftime deficit to defeat Vancouver Whitecaps FC, 3-2.
But it may very well be midfielder Matt Polster’s bit of late-game feistiness -- in stoppage time of a preseason friendly, nonetheless -- that serves as the most conspicuous example of the type of relentless passion Paunovic is seeking from his team in 2016.
With the Whitecaps searching for an equalizer in the game’s final moments, 34-year-old MLS veteran Blas Pérez made an attempt on a high-arching ball that was destined for the hands of a leaping Matt Lampson, the Chicago Fire trialist and goalkeeper for the game’s final 11-plus minutes. Pérez collided mid-air with Lampson, sending the ’keeper awkwardly into the goalpost.
Polster’s reaction made it clear he did not appreciate Pérez’ effort in that particular situation:
“I think he’s very energetic and a very good teammate, that he wanted to defend [his teammate],” Paunovic said Monday when asked about Polster’s fiery reaction. “Obviously [Polster] reacted…we don’t want that to happen but I can understand that perfectly. He’s a young player, he understands that that situation was very dangerous for our goalkeeper. I truly understand what happened.”
Paunovic has spoken more than once since coming to the Fire about his intention to field a team that balances respect for the game with an unyielding will to win, regardless of score, setting or opponent. He reiterated those wishes Monday while remaining sympathetic to the perspective of the second-year Fire midfielder and U.S. U-23 international, who was strong on both sides of the ball while playing the full 90 minutes Sunday.
“We have to manage with those situations to be more calm,” Paunovic said. “But at the same time I think it’s good to make others understand that we are guys who care for each other [and are] good teammates. We’ll always defend our goal like we did on that play, and we will always defend one another when in this case someone’s health was almost in danger. We understand [Polster’s reaction] perfectly.”
The Fire return to preseason action Wednesday at the Simple Invitational in Portland, facing Minnesota United FC (NASL) at 7 p.m. CT. The match will stream live on Chicago-Fire.com.