Since his return from a mid-July foot sprain, FC Cincy's Tyler Polak has hardly missed a beat

Koch found ways to keep Mr. Reliable on the pitch

CINCINNATI -- When Tyler Polak went down with a foot sprain in mid-July, he couldn't help but think about how time off could jeopardize his role within FC Cincinnati's defense.

FC Cincinnati defender Tyler Polak moves the ball against Saint Louis FC during their game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on June 24, 2017.

The in-season additions of defenders Justin Hoyte and Josu Currais already had pressed Polak into a stiffer competition for playing time, and Polak seemed to be rising to the occasion with some of his best performances coming just before the injury.

Despite a month off from games, though, Polak came back last week and found his contributions were not forgotten. He earned the start Aug. 23 against Ottawa Fury FC and had a hand in two goals as FC Cincinnati won 3-1 to jump back into the playoff picture with seven matches left.

Polak looks to be an importance piece as FC Cincinnati (9-9-7) heads into the final two months of the season, continuing at 4 p.m. Saturday with a home match against Pittsburgh.

"It was in the back of my mind a little bit (how the injury could affect playing time), but at the same time I knew we had a lot of games, especially in the Open Cup run, so I knew we'd have some tired legs and I just needed to try to get back as quickly as I could," said Polak, who was drafted 22nd overall in 2012 by the New England Revolution after three semesters at Creighton University. "I knew I might lose minutes, so I was just preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."

The 25-year-old Lincoln, Nebraska, native said he's still working on his fitness level after so much time off from game situations, but otherwise, he was able to pick up right where he left off.

FC Cincinnati defender Tyler Polak stops the ball as Saint Louis FC’s Mats Bjurman runs past during their game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on June 24, 2017.

In his return last week, he was active getting up and down the field, he tallied his second assist of the season on a cross to Danni Konig and he sent in a free kick that Sem de Wit buried off a deflection for one of a handful of uncharted hockey assists Polak carries this season.

"Tyler's left foot we know is quality," de Wit said after the game. "He's got great service, and it's up to us to do something with it."

Polak had missed five league matches, in addition to the international friendly with Valencia CF and two U.S. Open Cup games. At the time he went down, he was one of the team leaders in minutes played and had started in 15 of the 16 matches he appeared in, especially finding a sweet spot as a wingback when the club adjusted to a 3-5-2 in mid-June.

The timing of that change worked well for Polak, who otherwise might have been bumped out of the lineup with Hoyte sliding into his spot at left back in a four-man back row. Hoyte joined FC Cincinnati right before the April 9 game at Bethlehem Steel FC and started in Polak's place that match but pulled a hamstring 13 minutes in and didn't return until the U.S. Open Cup third-round game against Louisville on May 31.

Hoyte, a former Premier League defender, has been a regular on the back line ever since his return, but FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch seems to have made it a point of finding ways to get Polak on the field.

FC Cincinnati defender Tyler Polak moves the ball away from Saint Louis FC’s Dragan Stojkov during their game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on June 24, 2017.

"I think Ty is Mr. Consistent and Mr. Reliable, which is what you want from your fullbacks and which is what you know you're going to get with him," Koch said. "He had a bit of a slow start to the season but in the middle of the season, and since he's back from injury, he seems to have come into his own."

Koch pointed out the addition of Currais as another motivating factor for Polak. FC Cincinnati announced the signing of the former FC Barcelona Academy player in mid-May, but the visa process delayed his arrival, and he didn't make his debut until June 17, when Polak was in the midst of his best soccer in two years with the club.

By then, FC Cincinnati was using a steady rotation to rest players during the thick of the Open Cup run, but Currais did make an immediate impact. Currais has three assists in 10 games.

"Quality players embrace healthy competition, and Ty is one of those players," Koch said. "He's picked up his game, and he's playing at a high level. He's had some huge moments for us."

FC Cincinnati defender Tyler Polak sets up a play against Saint Louis FC during their game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on June 24, 2017.

Polak said the increased competition within the squad has made the team better as a whole, and players are getting more out of training sessions because of it.

The United Soccer League in itself has become more competitive, too, which makes Polak's return that much more important now. FC Cincinnati entered this week in seventh in the Eastern Division standings with 34 points -- 10 points behind first-place Louisville, five points out of fourth (which is good for a home game in the playoffs) and just one point ahead of ninth-place Pittsburgh, which is the first team out of the playoff picture.

"It puts good pressure on the guys because it's a do-or-die situation with the league being so tight," Polak said. "We're 10 points from first place, so it's important we have everyone available. It's a good time to come back. It also puts good pressure on you so you're not coming back lackadaisical. If we had things wrapped up, it might be easier to just kind of ease back in."

FC Cincinnati especially likes having Polak's "fantastic left foot" back on the pitch, whether it be on set pieces or in open play, Koch said. He's a quality defender with some versatility to his game.

Last year under John Harkes, Polak was a solid contributor, as well, while leading the team in field minutes (2,513), but he played a much less noticeable role focused mainly on defense. He's made a bigger statement this season while having to fight harder for the playing time he's earned and shifting to a more mobile position on the left flank.

Polak had signed with FC Cincinnati just hoping to finally get consistent playing time after appearing in only three games between the 2014 and 2015 seasons with former North American Soccer League club Minnesota United. Before that, he had played one regular-season game with the Revs and spent most of 2013 on loan with the USL side Rochester Rhinos before New England cut him.

Cincinnati gave him a chance to once again showcase the talent he displayed as a youth when he earned caps with the U.S. national teams at the U-14 through U-20 levels.

"It seemed like a good opportunity and a risk I was willing to take," Polak said of his signing with FC Cincinnati. "It turned out pretty well."

Polak welcomed the challenge this year to use his abilities more within the offense for a chance "to turn the tables on the opponent" after sitting back on defense for so long.

Last year, he didn't do as much crossing while playing in Harkes' four-back setup that rarely changed personnel. He plays more like a midfielder now, which Polak said he hasn't done in about 10 years. He has 45 interceptions and an 81.3 passing accuracy percentage, both ranking fifth best on the team.

"This year with Djiby (Fall) and Danni (Konig) and Kyle (Greig) as forwards up top, they are big boys," Polak said. "Having them in there has forced me to work on my crossing. Ugo (Sean Okoli) was good last year, but we have three guys that are unbelievable in there, and it makes it so much easier. I'm more confident putting the ball in the box because there is a good chance they are going to score."

A lot has changed for Polak off the field since last year, too.

On New Year's Eve this past offseason, he married his wife, Haylee. The two had met in high school in Lincoln before he joined the U-17 national team in 2007 with residency in Florida, where he attended Edison High School and then Bradenton Prep.

"I asked her to a dance in high school and she turned me down, but we kept in contact through the years," said Polak, the youngest of four boys, one who previously played with Louisville City and another who had a brief stint with an indoor pro team in Omaha. "I had her fly to Rochester when I was on loan there (in 2013), and we started dating and it just went from there."

The couple has two cats and enjoys going to local parks like Ault Park and Washington Square but otherwise are "kind of homebodies," Polak said.

That seems about right for one of the quietest guys on the team.

Koch said Polak is surprisingly also one of the most humorous in a dry, sarcastic manner that not everyone picks up on, but that tone changes once he hits the pitch.

"His mental focus about how he goes about his work in training and managing 90 minutes in the game has been fantastic," Koch said. "He's improved a lot as the season has gone on, but that is probably the biggest reason why -- he's motivated to succeed and he puts the work in to be successful."

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