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Rolfe's return fills need for flickering Fire
by Ridge Mahoney, April 19th, 2012 1:13AM

TAGS:  chicago fire, mls


[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Another MLS product has returned to the fold. Chris Rolfe, who scored 40 goals in five seasons before trying his luck in Denmark, has come back to the Chicago Fire.

Since he took over the Fire one-third of the way through the 2011 season, Coach Frank Klopas has flipped a lot of switches and pushed a lot of buttons trying to ignite the offense.

Last year, if you’ll recall, the roster featured at times Diego Chaves, Gaston Puerari, Cristian Nazarit, Baggio Husidic and Gabriel Ferrari. All have moved on, and despite the presence this season of Dominic Oduro, Marco Pappa, Sebastian Grazzini, Federico Puppo, Orr Barouch and ex-Rev Kehli Dube to fill out the attacking slots, the Fire has scored only three goals in four games.  That’s a very small sample size, and not necessarily definitive of how the offense will fare this year, yet with the U.S. and Canadian transfer window about to close Monday, Klopas snapped up a piece of the team’s past.

His latest move is to re-acquire Chris Rolfe, who rather quietly during his first stint in Chicago (2005-09) scored enough goals (40) to move into second place on the team’s all-time list in that category. Rolfe departed to spend 2 1/2 years in Denmark with Aalborg, for which he played forward and midfield when he wasn’t fighting off a string of nettlesome injuries. He scored six goals in 32 appearances and played for Aalborg as recently as last weekend prior to a whirlwind transfer that had him training with the Fire Wednesday.

“Everything just happened so fast in the last five days or so,” he said to “It’s been extremely hectic and challenging but I have to give credit to both clubs for working through the process together and MLS for helping as well. I’m really excited to be back in Chicago and to be part of this organization again. I hope I can provide something they need right now.”

What might that need be? It would seem enough potency is already in place. But while there’s speed in Nyarko and Oduro, pace and guile in Pappa, craftiness in Grazzini and Rafael Robayo, size and strength in Barouch, and other attributes sprinkled amongst the other players, the Fire can be predictable. Oduro can stretch defenses but seldom has that space between the midfielders and back lines been sufficiently exploited.

Rolfe can work effectively in different areas of the attacking third. Whether floating wide or foraging underneath his forward partner, he can add dimension to the Fire attack and enable Pavel Pardo to exert a greater influence with his vision and passing. Though he’s not big, he’s capable of holding the ball and dishing it off with his quickness and immaculate first touch.

At 5-foot-8 and a shade less than 150 pounds, Rolfe is the antithesis of a banger, and during the first phase of his MLS career struggled in the trenches. If his strength and resilience have been honed in Denmark, and he’s also added tactical sophistication and craftiness, he can either provide the final ball or finish it off. He registered only 20 assists in those five MLS seasons yet his presence on this version of the Fire may provide him opportunities to set up his teammates often.

Rolfe may also be coming back to MLS at the right time, with the league adopting tighter controls and sharper oversight of rough play. Players of Rolfe’s size will always be targets of muscular marking and fierce tackling, and though the procedures implemented are a sporadic work-in-progress, the intent is to enable skilled players like Rolfe to do their thing.

The track record of American players in the year they returned to MLS hasn’t been good the past few years: Danny Califf, Bobby Convey and Kenny Cooper have all had their rough spells making the transition. Rolfe arrives match-fit and comes back to the same team he left, so the culture shock should be minimal.

He’s also joining a team anxious to recapture the momentum of a strong 2011 finish that just missed the playoffs, as it did in 2010 after Rolfe left. It reached the postseason in each of his five seasons. Can his presence make the difference?

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