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Words About Shapes: The Fire's improbable dream midfield

All the buzz is about the attacking play of Shipp, Maloney, and Accam, but it's Polster and the fifth member of midfield ("Mr. X") who are performing above expectations

"When they called me mad at the academy, I vowed I would SHOW THEM ALL." Easy, Frank, we're impressed.
"When they called me mad at the academy, I vowed I would SHOW THEM ALL." Easy, Frank, we're impressed.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Fire's three-game winning streak seems longer, doesn't it?

After a nearly three-week hiatus, the next game (last Friday's 1-0 win over NYCFC) was always going to carry a huge emotional burden. Win, and the two-game prior win-streak gets to join the two-week layoff as part of a five-week bubble: Faint hopes solidify, are exceeded, and reform as greater hopes, which repeat the cycle. Lose, and the icy finger of doubt touches one's spine. Was it ever real?

The league has started to notice that the Men in Red can pose some difficult questions in attack. (Kudos to Matt Doyle, who was only just a bit behind ... me ... onboard the Harry Shipp train.) It's almost been like a staggered rollout, with each of the Fire's three top weapons taking a turn in the limelight over the winning streak.

First up was Shipp, whose trequartista masterclass against Philadelphia included this ridiculousness:

Then Maloney had his breakout game in the league, springboarded by the first flourishing of the Shipp/Maloney creative axis.*

Finally Accam, given some room by Shipp & Maloney, Men-At-Leisure!

But, to be honest, all of this is well within specs. Harry Shipp is a singular talent, a self-created phenom, an American so soft-footed and thoughtful that he just might force the national team to slow down to accommodate him. Shaun Maloney is the straw that stirs the drink for a little country called Scotland, the inventors of passing football. And Accam's brilliance still lies well in the Land of Small Sample Size, where Freddie Adu is an icon for the USA.

Our purpose here is not to heap (further) praise on the obviously laudable attacking trio in Chicago's midfield. We're here to talk about the other two guys - Matt Polster and Mr. X. It's their contributions which have truly been a surprise, allowing the Men in Red to not only shift gears as events dictate, but to look a cogent and cohesive group while doing so.

The passionate Mr. Polster

Let's just get this out of the way - if you're going to be a stretch draft pick of an American sporting enterprise, Polster delivered a lesson in how to get the fans on your side from the first. fucking. moment. with his tearful, passionate speech about his love for the club and gratefulness to be part of the enterprise. But sports is a results business, and all the weepy wantin'-to doesn't matter if you can't play.

Matt Polster can play.

I'll be honest here - I liked his highlights, but I thought that Polster's level was somewhere around ‘slab of beef' and ‘canny slab of beef.' There was nothing about his sense of how to keep the ball in the highlight package, nothing about his ability to play the simple ball and the Hollywood ball and most of the others. There was nothing that said "I'm a guy who's going to be asking for the ball before I officially check in on my first preseason appearance." (Seriously. I swear he was pointing at his feet while the fourth official fiddled with his electronic board.)

In the first 5 minutes of his first start, I felt my inner scout lighting up one of those really cheap cigars favored by scouts and the homeless - clearly, Polster was the cattle-ish thudder I'd thought him. Three times he was near the ball, and three times he simply demolished the opponent in his zeal to win the ball. By the third time, the official was laughing to himself and holding Polster's first yellow card** above his head.

Fast-forward less than 500 minutes of professional football into the future, and here's Polster's distribution chart against NYCFC:

"Sean!" you're saying. (Alright, you're not. Go with it.) "This seems a lot of passes for a rookie about whom you've employed largely bovine metaphors!" And yes, you're right - it's a hell of a lot of passes. The Fire held the ball a great deal in the second half, taking the sting out of the game and frustrating the shorthanded Sky Blues; for the game, they completed 86 percent of their 523 passes.

Get this: Polster had 96 of them - 96! His 110 touches were 40 more than anyone else on the team. All of this playing in a more advanced role than previously, more of a pulley-system box-to-box role. Hell, he even put two shots on goal, one of them a dipping screamer that took a good save from Ryan Meara to tip over. And get this: One foul committed, three fouls suffered.

It's safe to say that we have no idea about Polster's ceiling. It'd be lovely if this were a simple matter, if we could simply draw a chart with Polster's first performance, and his latest, and extrapolate from there. (Of course, such an extrapolation would have him as Claude Makelele by August, and a transdimensional shade of crimson by November.)

But it's early days yet. Polster's been on a professional team's roster for six league games. We're not even sure of the kid's best position yet - a question made harder to answer by the variety of partners on his central-midfielder dance card.

When next we return: The search ... for Mr. X, in Part II.

* So much to love about that goal. Joevin Jones' huge switch to start it; Shipp's almost casual back-post cross onto Maloney; the way Shaun held held held, as if on a string tied to the far corner flag, giving ground until he felt he'd wrong-footed basically everyone, which (it turns out) he had.
** D'awwwww.