BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Having played a pivotal role in the recruitment of Matt Polster, Chicago Fire technical director Brian Bliss has compared the rookie’s play to US national team legend John Harkes and believes he has “got the tools” to progress and perhaps one day play for the national team.
Bliss, who won 34 caps with the US, was instrumental in identifying the 21-year-old Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville alumni as a potential target for head coach Frank Yallop ahead of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, and Polster’s selection at No. 7 raised a few eyebrows amongst fans and commentators alike.
However, having played three times for the Fire’s PDL side in 2014 and excelling at the 2015 Player Combine, the Las Vegas native leapfrogged to the top of Yallop’s wish list before his eventual lofty selection, which led to an understandably emotional reaction from Polster.
“He’s gifted athletically; he’s got an engine,” Bliss said of the versatile Polster, who has been used effectively as a defensive midfielder but can also play at the back. “He reminds me of, and I don’t want to oversell the kid, but talking about the engine, the motor, he’s very similar to a John Harkes.
“I played with John Harkes for six, seven, eight years with the national team, and Matt reminds me a little bit of John in terms of the way he gets around the field. From the minute the whistle blows to the minute it ends he’s on it, he’s got his foot on the gas and he doesn’t let up.”
That engine first came to light during Bliss’ six-year stint as technical director with Columbus Crew SC, where he kept a close eye on prospects in the collegiate game. Polster was one name that came to his attention when he was named Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year in 2011 with SIUE.
“I was in Columbus for six years, and that conference is relatively close to us," Bliss told MLSsoccer.com. "And we had seen that conference play two or three of the six years I was there, so I kind of knew the player then."
Polster enjoyed a strong collegiate career at SIUE, playing 79 games and earning MVC and NSCAA recognition, before getting involved with the Fire’s PDL team in 2014. That gave the Fire’s coaching staff an opportunity to work more closely with Polster and test him alongside the best young players in the region.
“Our PDL team is pretty competitive, and there’s some good players in there that return home from college every year,” Bliss said. “If you were someone who didn’t know the players, you could stand on the sideline and say, ‘Yeah, he’s one of the best two or three players on the Fire.’”
Despite his impressive outings with the PDL outfit, Polster was not particularly high on the Fire’s radar before being watched closely at the MVC Tournament by assistant coach Clint Mathis, who was also checking on the form of Polster’s SIUE teammate Christian Volesky.
However, his performances there and over the three-day Combine in Florida in January propelled him up their list of potential draft picks.
“I wouldn’t say that Polster was on our radar for a first-round pick," Bliss admitted. "However, he was in a pool of 15-20 players that we liked that could have been a first- or second-round pick, but I don’t think we had earmarked him directly as a seventh-overall pick.
“He was certainly someone that we rated, and when he got to the Combine and you saw him stacked up against what was considered the best players for seniors and [Generation adidas players], he held his own and excelled even. So his stock really went up, and not only with us but with a lot of other teams.”
Polster’s emotional reaction to his selection was one of the highlights of the SuperDraft, certainly for Fire fans, but his swift rise to first-team regular was not something the club’s coaching staff had expected. Amongst a plethora of US and international talent, Polster has forced his way into Yallop’s plans and started four of the Fire’s five games, impressing with his mature, controlled, box-to-box displays.
“We had high hopes for him, but we didn’t expect him, I don’t believe, to be playing as a starter in four out of the last five games,” Bliss admitted. “We thought he could play along and certainly help us, but probably didn’t expect him to lock down a starting spot a couple of weeks into the season.
- Get more Chicago Fire news at Chicago-Fire.com
"Kudos to him that he’s done it. He’s kept his head on his shoulders as well, he’s pretty grounded in that regard, so we’ve certainly been the benefactor of it and he’s done well.”
Polster was expected to get his first taste of international duty this week with a call-up to Andreas Herzog’s US U-23 team for Wednesday’s 3-0 victory over Mexico, but the Fire’s first game in 20 days against New York City FC on Friday night (8 pm ET; UDN) took precedence.
“He’s got potential, there’s no doubt, he’s got the tools," Bliss said of Polster's potential. "It’s the mental aspect and how hard he wants to drive himself, and I think he’s got those attributes. I’m not saying he’s going to make the full national team, but when you start looking at the national team, I hate to say it, but athleticism plays a role at the international level, and he’s got that.
“Technically, he’s certainly strong enough, tactically he’s pretty aware and obviously the stepping stone would be the next opportunity to go in with the Under-23s because Matt’s never been in an international environment or an international game,” he added. “It’s certainly a different feel, a different tempo to those games and a different pressure. His next obvious stepping stone would be that Olympic team.”