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Player Spotlight: From Olympics to playoffs, Polster hopes for busy sophomore season

Debbie Polster had grown tired of the restlessness. As her young son offered more energy than she could handle, she decided to find an outlet for that vivacity.

It was then that a 3-year-old Matt Polster enjoyed his first encounter with a soccer field.

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"I could never sit down, and she just put me into a sport that was non-stop running," Polster told Goal USA. "My mom just put me in it because I was a maniac who couldn't sit down for five seconds — that's how it started."

Not much has changed over the past two decades. Asked to describe the 22-year-old midfielder, new Chicago Fire boss Veljko Paunovic immediately turned to the word "energy." After an eventful rookie year that saw him log 30 MLS matches and start for the United States' Olympic qualifying team, Polster has his sights set on an even busier 2016.

Fresh off his first U.S. senior national team camp, Polster hopes more call-ups come down the road. A March playoff against Colombia could book the Under-23 squad's spot at the Summer Olympics. And a revamped Fire team has its sights set on a return to the postseason.

That's a lot to put on a young player's plate — even one as vibrant as Polster.

"He's a really young guy, full of potential," said Paunovic, who handed Polster the captain's armband for Chicago's final two preseason matches. "We have to channel his passion, his will to give his best in every session, in every game. But at the same time, we have to put that under control — and that control has to come from him. That is what we are working on."

Polster's rise was rooted in Las Vegas' under-the-radar soccer scene. The resort hub may be renowned for its bright lights, but it's in the dark as far as professional soccer is concerned, with a four-hour drive separating Las Vegas from any club in the top three tiers of U.S. Soccer.

Taken seventh overall at the 2015 draft out of SIU Edwardsville, Polster has emerged as the city's biggest success story in the sport since former U.S. forward Herculez Gomez broke into MLS in 2002.

"Obviously it's pretty difficult," Polster said. "I think it's growing as a soccer community, but the downfall is there's no professional soccer team or academy team there. So we don't get as much respect because we don't have that type of coaching. It's tough for players to come out of Las Vegas, but I think there is a lot of quality."

Inspired by his club team's trip to Liverpool some 10 years ago, Polster draws inspiration in his game from Steven Gerrard. As a ball-hawking central midfielder with technical prowess and the versatility to play right back, Polster developed into a much-needed bright spot for Chicago last season.

But with a league-worst 8-20-6 record came inevitable change, as Polster saw Frank Yallop — the coach who not only drafted him but handed him a starting role by Week 2 — leave the club before the end of the 2015 season.

"I was a little upset," Polster said. "On one side, Frank gave me all my opportunities. Obviously I had to prove myself a little bit for him to give me a chance, but at least he me that chance. I thanked him for that. But at the end of the day, the game is about winning. At the time, it looked like we had to do something different."

Although Polster didn't see the field in the two friendlies the U.S. played this winter, he relished the opportunity to take part in a camp that mixed MLS veterans with U-23 prospects. From Michael Bradley's pregame preparation to Perry Kitchen's post-practice regimen, Polster paid close attention to the habits that place national team players above the crowd.

With his first senior national team experience under his belt, Polster has now been asked to set a similar example for his club teammates as Chicago looks to end a three-year playoff drought.

"From my experience, every player that comes from a national team camp, from national team games, they are better," Paunovic said. "They are contained with that spirit of the national team. ... When you see the people all around with the same values and same way of thinking, that really makes you be a better person and a better player. What we expect from those guys when they come back to their clubs is to do the same in their environment."

While the national team resumes World Cup qualifying in late March, Polster knows he won't be a part of that squad. The U.S. U-23s will instead require his services as they face Colombia over two legs for a ticket to Rio this summer. After starting all five matches as the Americans finished third at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in October, Polster figures to again play a pivotal role for Andi Herzog's squad.

As Polster finds himself on the cusp of becoming an Olympian, it's safe to say his mother picked the right way to keep her fidgety kid occupied.

"It's obviously not the pinnacle like the World Cup, but it's right behind that," Polster said. "To be a part of something that big is huge, and I definitely think I have the ability to make that happen going into Colombia. I think we have a really good chance, I think we've prepared, I think we having the players to do it, the coaching staff to do it. So I'm pretty confident."

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