It was all just a matter of time for Tyler Polak.
The Nebraskan left back was a highly-touted prospect as a youth, earning caps with the US U-14, U-15, U-17, U-18, and U-20 teams as he developed as a player. After attending Creighton University for three semesters, Polak was drafted by New England (22nd overall) in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft as a Generation Adidas (GA) prospect. The GA program highlights players that the organization thinks could be strong pro players coming out of college ahead of their senior year, giving them financial security in case they go undrafted. With the backing of international managers and an MLS partner, Polak seemed destined to be a regular.
He was a backup to Chris Tierney and featured once in his two seasons with the Revs, ultimately spending the majority of the 2013 season on loan to the USL’s Rochester Rhinos. After 18 matches with the Rhinos, Polak was released by New England before signing with Minnesota United for the 2014 NASL season.
“I thought my time in Minnesota went pretty well,” Polak remarked over the phone. “Like any other player, I was looking for some playing time. I ended up playing behind Justin Davis, who’s a good player, and I’m happy to see the success that he’s had. The coaches really liked him and his playing style. The coaches, particularly Carl [Craig] and Manny [Lagos], were good at what they did. Talking with them and Justin to get some insight on leaning a different style of play was beneficial.”
Over the course of his two seasons with United, Polak saw the field for three league games, as Davis went on to win consecutive NASL Best XI nods. Still just 23 during the winter offseason, it became clear that playing time would be the most important factor in Polak’s next destination.
Polak’s last start for United was on October 17 against Indy Eleven. Just over two months before that match, the USL had officially announced a new franchise out of Cincinnati. Owned by Carl H. Lindner III and family (of the American Financial Group) and coached by former USMNT star John Harkes, the club had lofty ambitions from the start, launching an appealing brand and setting to play their inaugural season in the University of Cincinnati’s football stadium, Nippert Stadium.
“Yeah, it seemed like a risk, but after playing four years professionally and not getting constant playing time, it was a risk I was willing to take. It’s definitely paid off.” – Tyler Polak
The rest, as many have said, is history.
Polak was one of the first 11 players signed by FC Cincinnati, alongside a fellow former Loon: goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt. Announced in a press conference in December, the club used a relatively short timeline from announcement to kickoff to their advantage, able to build and sustain a buzz across the Queen City.
For Polak, signing with a young club was a risk worth taking. “Based on talking with the coaches, the club had everything organized already. With [general manager] Jeff Berding, who’s been in sports before with the Cincinnati Bengals, he had an idea how to make deals and about the city as a whole. It sounded like a good spot. Yeah, it seemed like a risk, but after playing four years professionally and not getting constant playing time, it was a risk I was willing to take. It’s definitely paid off.”
The club had their first home game on April 9 against the Charlotte Independence. Initially, many were wondering how many people would show up to see a new team play in a college football venue. The following week, the club shattered league attendance records with 20,497 in the stands as the club faced Louisville City FC. They broke their own record twice this year (currently sitting at 24,376 as the club clinched a postseason berth against Orlando City B) and drew a state-record crowd for a soccer match for the team’s friendly against Crystal Palace this season.
The support has been a tremendous boost for the players. “It was crazy,” Polak admits. “It’d been a while since I’d started, so getting out there in front of tens of thousands of fans was incredible. The players have built a really good relationship with them. It’s still exciting every week. We had a long preseason and we couldn’t wait to show the fans what we could bring to Cincinnati.”
Polak has gotten nothing but regular playing time for FCC, leading the club in field minutes played (2,513 of a possible 2,700) as the club made it to the playoffs. One of just four field players to feature in all 30 matches, Polak has been able to showcase the talent that made him a top prospect in college. He thinks his game has improved, citing “positioning and recovery defense” as his main two areas of growth. “Having played behind Tierney and Davis before me and getting minutes to implement that, it’s been a huge year.”
“I would be ecstatic to play in MLS, whether it be with this team in the future sometime or another team, but for right now, the focus is the playoffs.”
The record-breaking inaugural season isn’t over yet for FC Cincinnati, as the club will host Charleston Battery in the first round of the USL Playoffs this Sunday (October 2, 3 p.m. CDT). Polak said the team is confident going into the match, though Charleston has taken four points from their two matches against FCC this year.
Polak also cited some strong play by the team’s backline as a catalyst for optimism. “We’ve been able to keep four straight shutouts at the end of the year, and that’s a good sign for the defense. We always want to keep Mitch happy, and Minnesota fans can relate to that. We’re prepared, we’re excited, and we’re looking good.”
As the club has announced another ticket sales figure over 20,000 for the match, the team will get ready for their biggest match yet. As for the 24-year-old Polak, he sees this as another step towards his individual goals.
“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about what comes after this game. I’m trying to get through this season with constant minutes, and that’s my focus. I’m very happy here. The team, the coaches, the organization are all unbelievable. I’ll be here next season for sure. That’s the focus right now. I would be ecstatic to play in MLS, whether it be with this team in the future sometime or another team, but for right now, the focus is the playoffs.”