When I first started writing this article yesterday I had meant to discuss how Matt Polster’s return from injury would’ve been the spark that the Chicago Fire desperately needed. That was before the penny dropped.
As reported yesterday by Dan Santaromita for ProSoccerUSA.com, Polster suffered an injury setback in training this week that would extend his time on the DL. While the Fire haven’t made an official announcement yet, head coach Veljko Paunovic said that things definitely don’t look good, and that Polster will be unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Paunovic has mostly relied on Kevin Ellis so far this season, but despite some recent strong performances— including goals in back-to-back games— it’s becoming clear that he is not the long term option at right back. Ellis was at fault for the opening goal in Columbus, bringing down Gyasi Zardes in the box after getting caught ball-watching and conceding a penalty. His lack of speed makes it hard for him to get up and down the pitch, limiting his contributions in the Fire attack.
Ellis is also making things harder for his partner at outside back. Brandon Vincent got off to a hot start to the season, scoring once and grabbing two assists, but has cooled off since Ellis has come into the lineup. As opposing defenses realize they won’t have to worry about overlapping runs on the right side of the pitch, they shift over to provide more cover on the left side. This makes it much harder for Vincent to find the space he needs to whip in crosses, as there’s always another defender in his way. He was a huge part of the offense with Polster in the team last season, and has perhaps been most negatively affected player due to the Fire homegrown’s injury layoff.
It is time for a change to be made, and it should be Rafael Ramos who finally gets his chance in the lineup. The former Portuguese youth international came to Chicago in the offseason, joining from Orlando in the trade that saw Cam Lindley go the other way. He got plenty of time in preseason, and was starting to look like a shrewd signing. Ramos started against Minnesota in the second game of the year, but hasn’t seen the field since. He was an unused sub for games against Columbus and the LA Galaxy in mid-April, and hasn’t even made the matchday 18 since then. Ramos did pick up a minor ankle injury along the way, but has returned to training.
Ramos seems like a solid wingback option for the Fire, as he is the type of player who should thrive in the team’s system. He is known for his attacking abilities and loves to get forward at any opportunity. He can cover plenty of ground as well, using his pace to get back on defense when need be. Ramos can get the job done in the final third as well, able to cross the ball into dangerous areas or even rip a shot from distance. He was able to link up play well in preseason and developed some real chemistry with his new teammates.
He is a bit of a liability defensively, which might be the reason Paunovic is yet to trust him. Ramos can defend in one on one scenarios, but suffers when having to track a player for a full ninety minutes. He can get caught ball-watching, leaving his man open or skewering the backlines offside line. He still is young, only having turned 23 in January, and should only improve in those areas of weakness as he gains experience.
Ramos needs game time to grow, however, and the upcoming match against the Dynamo could be the perfect time to bring him back into the team. Houston is known for their speed, with Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis flying down the wing on the attack. If Paunovic keeps Ellis in the lineup, his lack of speed will see him torched everytime he tries to track a run in behind. Ramos, on the other hand, is much faster and should have an easier time keep up with the Dynamo wingers.
Polster was supposed to be the spark to ignite this team, but his injury might just allow Ramos the chance to kickstart his Fire career, and add another dimension to the Chicago attack.