BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — It doesn’t take long during a Chicago Fire training session to notice that Matt Polster has just one gear. The 25-year-old is a ball of energy who always goes hard at practice.
But after multiple knee injuries, he is realizing that may not be the way forward. Polster is back in full training after undergoing MCL surgery in May. The surgery came after he re-injured his right knee after initially hurting it in March, right before the team traveled for the second game of the season.
“It was just a weird tanglement,” Polster said of when the injury occurred. “We were playing a small-sided game. [During] a buildup, I just kind of threw my leg out there. A kid landed on me, and then that’s how I did it the first time.”
Polster has a history of knee injuries — he suffered a left knee injury in the 2016 season finale that kept him out of the first nine games of 2017, and then missed three more games with a knee injury later in the season — but said this one was more of a one-off fluke.
He started the season opener, but then suffered the injury in practice the following week. He returned to training in May before the recurrence and surgery.
“I just don’t think we took the right steps, in my opinion, to fully healing up,” Polster said. “So that’s why I did it again. This time [assistant athletic trainer] Reade [Whitney] took over completely and we had a really strong program, a running program and I feel just as good as when I didn’t have it before.”
Polster said Whitney noticed a play in training Wednesday where Polster put the most stress on his MCL possible and moved the ball without hesitation.
“He said I looked really good,” Polster said. “He’s confident. When he’s confident, I’m confident, because I trust him.”
When Polster entered the league as a rookie in 2015, he was a hard-running holding midfielder. He also played at right back, including during stints with the United States Olympic qualifying team. In 2017, Polster moved to right back full-time and had a breakout season of sorts with a goal and seven assists.
However, his playing time has gone down in each of his four seasons due to injuries. Polster went from 30 appearances and 2,422 minutes as a rookie to 27 appearances and 2,107 minutes in 2016 and 22 appearances and 1,769 minutes last season. This year, Polster still has just the one start from the season opener. He is hoping to get back on the field in one or both of the final two matches.
“I feel like last year was just fatigue issues,” Polster said. “I don’t think it was necessarily a big injury. I think it was just a compound of games over a stretch. I think just managing it more was more the issue last year. Obviously, I still played 22 games … so I know I still missed a few games, but for the most part I think if I managed it more, I would have gone up to 28, 29, to be honest.”
Polster said he learned the hard lesson of knowing when to take things a bit easy and not always push as hard as possible.
“The last year was more controllable, and I think I could have done a better job. But, definitely growing and figuring out how the body works and how you have to manage yourself through practices,” he said. “I’m definitely the player that always goes 100 percent all the time. There’s no chill with me, unfortunately.
“At a young age, to learn from these injuries and to understand in practice sometimes not going 100 percent and just kind of saving yourself for games is the way to go. I was definitely not that kid.”
Polster said the recovery process was “miserable” because he couldn’t walk for the first few weeks and then he wasn’t around the team as much. Even though the Fire are out of playoff contention, making a return to the field would be notable for Polster.
“With how the season has gone, we’re obviously not in playoffs, so it’s really up to [the coaching staff] what they want to do, but I will be available for both games,” Polster said. “From my standpoint, I know I’m healthy, so going into the next year I’ll be 100 percent. To show this team and the league … that you’re there and you can play a game, I think that’s a big factor for me.”
Fire coach Veljko Paunović didn’t give anything away when asked about Polster’s availability.
“He’s progressing well,” Paunović said. “Hopefully we can count on him for the next two games. We’ll see. It depends, obviously, on his fitness and sensations from training to training, day by day, and we will make decisions once we are closer to the game.”