Entering his third season as a professional, Chicago Fire defender Matt Polster found himself in a tricky situation as the club’s 2017 campaign kicked off.
After an an influx of experienced midfield talent found its way to Chicago over the winter months, Polster -- himself a central midfielder by trade -- would have to compete with the likes of World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger, U.S. Men’s National Teamer Dax McCarty, and three–time MLS Cup winner Juninho for minutes, as well as Fire Homegrown products Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic and 2017 MLS SuperDraft pick Brandt Bronico.
Not only that, but Polster would start the season on the back foot, missing the club’s first nine games with a left knee injury. Still, Polster’s talent and potential had been evident since he broke onto the scene as the Fire’s seventh-overall selection in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft and played over 2,000 minutes in each of his first two professional seasons.
So, how would the 24-year-old fit in in year three?
"Picking up a new position, that was expressed from (general manager) Nelson (Rodriguez) early in the season,” Polster said. "I told him ‘I really want to be a part of this team. I want to play, and I want to start.’ So that came up, and I was willing to take that role on."
The conjecture swirling around Polster’s role with the team was quickly put to bed when he made his 2017 debut with 19 minutes remaining against the reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders on May 13. With the Men In Red up 2-1, Polster entered the match for Michael de Leeuw and slotted into the defense. The Fire would score twice more with Polster on the field, as he briefly flashed the skill he’d go on to bring to the right back position over the remainder of the season.
Polster was a near-perfect 16-for-17 in distribution that night, and got Seattle left back Joevin Jones sent off after Jones responded harshly to having a ball slipped through his legs and picked up a second yellow card late in the game. The Fire cruised to a 4-1 victory.
"I played (right back) a little bit with (former Fire head coach Frank) Yallop a couple of times, and I played it a little bit with (coach Andreas) Herzog for the (U.S.) Under-23s, so a little familiar with it,” Polster said. “But, this season I started to get comfortable."
Poster’s full-time transition -- and transcendence, no less -- from central midfield to right back would become one of the 2017 Chicago Fire's foundational cogs en route to the club’s first postseason appearance since 2012. Following the Seattle win, Polster immediately slotted into head coach Veljko Paunovic’s starting XI against Colorado on May 17, and there was no looking back. The Fire would win that match -- as well as six of their next seven -- and ride an unbeaten record of 8-0-2 following Polster’s return all the way to the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings entering July’s break for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Polster’s relentless energy allowed him to get up-and-down the right side of the field quickly and develop into a key contributor to the Fire attack on top of his defensive responsibilities. He assisted four times during that pre-Gold Cup stretch, a total that -- at just midseason -- had already doubled his entire career output in the category. He’d finish the season with seven, the second-highest assist total on the team.
Defensively, he and the Fire backline gave up just five goals in that 10-match stretch as Polster’s chemistry with centerback Johan Kappelhof flourished.
"He would yell at me when to get back,” Polster said. "It’s just a good balance of understanding that Johan will be able to cover me, and I’ll be able to cover him. And it goes for the other side as well with Brandon (Vincent) and Joao (Meira) or Jonathan (Campbell)."
Fire faithful will be well aware of how the remainder of the regular season played out following the midseason break, as injuries to the backline and midfield began to mount and cohesion became tested as a result. A late-summer stretch saw the club lose six of seven matches in July and August, but ultimately finish in third place in the Eastern Conference.
"It just sucked that the break came,” Polster said. "I thought we were in a really good form, and maybe we got a little complacent. That happens sometimes, but I think being able to get out of that kind of slump…when hard times come, when we’re winless in two, we need to be able to switch it on and have that kind of mentality and experience to say we need to get back on the right path of playing on a high level."
Polster was absent for three of the aforementioned August defeats due to injury, a period that -- while frustrating for both player and club -- further proved how valuable his on-field presence had become. The numbers bear that out, as well.
|Team performance||Without Polster||With Polster|
|Record||3-6-3 (12 pts.)||13-5-4 (43 pts.)|
|Goals For (Goals per game)||15 (1.25)||46 (2.09)|
|Goals Against (Goals allowed per game)||22 (1.83)||25 (1.13)|
|Points per game||1.00||1.95|
In Polster’s 22 appearances in 2017, the Fire scored at a higher rate (+0.84 more goals/game), defended better (-0.70 goals allowed per game) and earned more points (+0.95, nearly a full point more per game!) as compared to the matches he missed. Outsiders began to take notice, too. Polster was added to the United States' preliminary roster for the Gold Cup back in June, was a three-time MLS Team of the Week honoree, and was recently pegged as Goal.com’s top MLS right back in 2017.
Polster admits that the right back experiment is still a work in progress, but with a full season of experience on the backline behind him and an offseason's worth of work ahead, the sky appears to be the limit in 2018 and beyond.
"One thing I would say I need to improve on would be a little bit on the positioning side, but I think that just comes with time. I thought I played the position well."
“I thought (the defense) got close as a group, and I think next season we’re going to be even better after playing with each other for a long season."