McCarty injury, Polster surgery create more woes for Chicago Fire

Chicago Fire assistant coach Marko Mitrovic's message was short but unfortunately on point for the team these days.

Watching players Drew Conner and Jorge Corrales wrestle for position over a soccer ball during a training exercise Thursday, Mitrovic yelled "Don't hurt him."

It's been that kind of season so far.

The Fire has dealt with so many injuries it might not be able to handle any more without dooming the team's chances for a repeat MLS playoff berth. And with the transfer window closed until July, there isn't much opportunity to bring in quality help for almost two months.

On Thursday the club announced right back Matt Polster had a setback in his recovery from a knee injury and underwent surgery Thursday morning to repair a right MCL tear. Polster, 24, a key figure in 2017's rebound season, has played just one game this year and won't be back until September or October.

Then there's captain Dax McCarty. He's expected to be out 3-4 weeks with a hamstring injury, coach Veljko Paunovic said.

"We try always to stay positive and don't give excuses and all this stuff," Paunovic added. "And I think also the message to the guys is, OK, so next man up. But definitely Dax is very important to us. Definitely is a big loss and we just have to handle the situation the best we can now."

It's a credit to Paunovic and the players that the seventh-place Fire (3-5-2, 11 points) remains a playoff contender despite these injuries. The team has scrapped its way to a point here and a point there. Extra effort and creative game plans have blunted the loss of talent and experience. McCarty's absence for 4-6 games will test that formula, however.

This injury trend started late last season when veteran Michael de Leeuw and young homegrown midfielder Djordje Mihailovic each tore an ACL. Both are working toward a July return, with Mihailovic likely to be back before de Leeuw, Paunovic said. The club will be cautious with both, though Lemont-native Mihailovic looked like he can't wait to rejoin his teammates.

Veteran midfielder/forward Luis Solignac remains sidelined with a quad injury, and top rookie Jon Bakero is nursing an ankle injury. Rookie Elliot Collier sat out Thursday's practice with minor knocks.

Young midfielders Daniel Johnson and Conner, a Cary-Grove High School graduate, are back in full training after recovering from minor injuries. First-year homegrown defender Grant Lillard missed time in the preseason and early in the season but seems to be getting comfortable as a starting center back.

"It's tough when you see guys that you care about as teammates working their way back and then something happens or playing well and then something happens," left back Brandon Vincent said. "So it's tough for the mentality of the group, but every day in training we know it's part of the game, injuries, so we have to adapt and make sure that we just stay focused."

Vincent said he texted fellow fullback Polster after hearing the news of his setback, "just to say I'm here for you, if you need anything just let me know."

Fortunately, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, looking energetic at age 33, is healthy and rested after sitting out Saturday's game at Columbus rather than play three games in a week.

Next man up? So far the best example has been Kevin Ellis, who has assumed the right back spot in Polster's absence. He has scored two important goals for the Fire already.

"There is a competition between Kevin Ellis and (newcomer Rafael) Ramos, who still has to get to the level of the rest and understand how we want to play," Paunovic said. "He has to just make the right adjustments in his play. We need him also to compete for the spot."

To replace McCarty, Tony Tchani could rejoin the starting lineup, or Johnson could be inserted if Paunovic opts for more attacking.

Just don't get hurt.

Matt Polster of the Chicago Fire underwent surgery Thursday morning to repair a right MCL tear.
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