Chicago's Matt Polster Rises to Top of Rookie Class
June 24, 2015
WHEN THE CHICAGO FIRE selected Matt Polster with the seventh overall pick in January's MLS SuperDraft, it came as a bit of a surprise to many who do not follow college soccer closely. Most top draft picks tend to come from traditional powerhouses like North Carolina, Virginia, or UCLA—not Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville which was in Division II as recently as 2006.
Polster, 21, a standout performer for SIUE, helped the Cougars earn a spot in the 2014 NCAA tournament and advance to the second round. The Wisconsin-born, Las Vegas-raised Polster gained a lot of attention particularly during his senior year and propelled that into becoming a high draft pick.
“I know I came from a small school but I had two of the best coaches who were there at the time: Kevin Kalish and Scott Donnelly,” Polster told American Soccer Now. “I think those two really developed my game over the span of three-and-a-half years.
"I chose SIUE because I felt they treated it like a professional environment. The coaching staff was second to none and they treated us like professionals and that is what I wanted. I think the biggest adjustment now at the professional level for me is getting consistent as possible and not having a bad game.”
Kalish was Polster’s first coach at SIUE and he recalls attending a youth tournament in Las Vegas without any particular player on his scouting list. His goal was simply to evaluate some local talent with distant hopes of uncovering an under-the-radar player. And he found a player who could glide past opponents effortlessly and possessed a passing range that was “phenomenal.”
"You could tell immediately, from the first 20 minutes you watched him, that he was a unique, special talent," Kalish said. "He’s got a great feel for the game and plays a number of different positions. He had that special gift where you knew he was going to be successful in the future.
"He’s physical, he’s athletic, and he’s intelligent. His intangibles are off the charts.”
The first few months of the MLS season have only validated the Fire’s pick. Polster has appeared in all of Chicago’s 14 games so far this season (he will miss tonight’s game with a yellow card suspension), starting in 13.
Polster, a central midfielder, has earned abundant praise this year and is considered a strong candidate for MLS Rookie of the Year. He'd rather not discuss the topic, preferring to focus on retaining his spot in the Starting XI. But others are happy to discuss Polster's athleticism and passing skills.
“He’s a good player and has done very well this season,” Fire coach Frank Yallop said this week. “Matt’s the one who has gone on the field and done his stuff. You never know how a player is going to work out until you’ve worked with him. From day one, working with Matt has been a joy to coach. He’s a likable kid and wants to learn. He’s really taken on a difficult role in the center of the midfield. I think he’s done very well.”
Versatility is another key attribute, as Polster can hold down the No. 6 role or slide back into central defense. At SIUE he played on the back line during his freshman and senior years; he featured in the midfield during his sophomore and junior campaigns.
For the Fire, Polster's league appearances have been in the midfield although he started in central defense in the club's 1-0 extra time win over Louisville in the U.S. Open Cup.
Polster prefers playing midfield, but believes that he is equally strong at both spots. Yallop could see him in either role. Or both.
“I think he did well but I see him with our team at this particular time as a center midfielder,” Yallop said. “I think he’s got all the traits to be a good center midfielder and centerback. I wouldn’t put it past us to try him again there.”
Polster has never represented the United States internationally at any level but that is expected to change this year. U.S. U-23 coach Andreas Herzog has named Polster to his squads on two occasions— first in April for a friendly against Mexico and earlier this month for the Toulon tournament. Both times the Fire prevented Polster from taking part.
With Olympic qualifying set to begin in October, Polster hopes he will get his chance to break into the U-23 team late in the cycle. San Jose’s Fatai Alashe appears to be the first-choice defensive midfielder at the moment, but Polster's strong rookie season, combined with his versatility, could earn him a spot.
“To have that presented to me was pretty cool," Polster said of the U-23 invitations, "but I understand where Frank and the Fire were coming from in wanting me to play these games. I was OK with that but hopefully the next chance I get to get called up, they give me the chance to go and prove myself.
"Playing for the national team is something any professional player would love to do and I want prove myself and get into the team and maybe make the qualifiers.”
Earlier this week Yallop said that he could not afford to let Polster go at the time but he will be more accommodating in the future.
“They had a couple of camps so far and obviously Matt has been playing with us regularly,” Yallop said. “It’s usually guys who haven’t gotten many minutes with teams or they have coverage in those positions where they can let those players go. He’ll get his chances later in the year with the Olympic team.”
For now, however, talk of international play is secondary. Polster’s primary focus is helping the Fire rebound from a three-game losing streak that has sent it to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
“The league is tough and there are a lot of ups and downs,” Polster said. “We’re down right now but we can easily go on an up streak. We can beat D.C. and go on a five-game unbeaten run.
"I think we’re in a good spot. We’re not that far off. We just have to win a few games and we’ll be OK.”
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.