By Ridge Mahoney
He's only been gone three years, yet Chris Rolfe marvels at some of the changes he sees in MLS as well as himself.
“The feel of the league is a lot different, from the great stadiums that some teams play in to the hotels we stay in, the fields we train on, to everything, really,” says the Chicago forward who left for Europe after the 2009 season and came back last spring. He and the Fire host Houston Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes) in the Eastern Conference wild-card game.
“It just feels a lot more professional in how you’re treated and things are handled. I feel we’re on the right progression.”
Speeding his progression as a player prompted, in part, a move to Danish club Aalborg after he’d scored between six and nine goals for the Fire in each of his five MLS seasons (2005-09). He’d first appeared for the U.S. national team in 2005, and during camps picked the brain of Heath Pearce, who had foregone MLS to start his career in Denmark and eventually made his way to German club Hansa Rostock.
Rolfe set out on the same path, but injuries and other complications limited him to 32 games and six goals during three seasons with Aalborg. A hamstring injury he suffered last year set him back far enough for him to consider a change, and when a return to Chicago popped up among his options, he took it. If his Danish experience didn’t propel him up the national-team ladder – his last cap came in 2008 – he believes it did broaden his appreciation of the game.
“It gave me a chance to listen to new ideas and play with players who had a different style and different tactics,” says Rolfe, who is relishing a more creative role under Coach Frank Klopas. “It opened my eyes to the variations you can have in playing the game and training, and the approach to the game. It gave me a different perspective on everything soccer-related.
“But, yeah, I was without my friends and family, of course, so it never really felt like home.”
The change in Rolfe’s game, says Klopas, comes from maturity as well as experience in Europe. In revamping his team from the midseason departures of Marco Pappa and Sebastian Grazzini, Klopas is using Rolfe’s playmaking instincts to complement the additions of target forward Sherjill MacDonald and midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, as well as winger Patrick Nyarko.
“We always knew that when Chris was here, anywhere around the goal his ability to finish was fantastic,” says Klopas. “But now his ability also to make that final pass I think has gotten better. More than anything it’s a maturity level. He’s gotten older, he’s gotten smarter.”
Rolfe notices other changes in the league beyond hotels and stadiums. A classic example of big skill in a small container – he’s 5-foot-8 and after two helpings of Thanksgiving dinner including pie might nudge the scale to 150 pounds –- he thinks the craftier player is more valued than during his first stint.
“The league was more physical a few years ago, and it seems like some of those players have either retired or left, and they haven’t been replaced by anybody with the same mentality,” says Rolfe. “It seems like teams are looking more for technical players and players who like to play more of an attractive style.
“For me, they’re expecting someone with a little bit of creativity to find the game going forward and creating chances for the guys up top, and obviously for myself. It’s a little bit of a different role from when I was here before but something I’ve wanted for a long time.”
He registered three assists along with the eight goals he scored in 22 games (19 starts). In his best season (2008) the numbers were nine goals and eight assists, figures he feels are within reach if he can steer clear of injuries – a sprained ankle sidelined him this season – in a potent Fire attack. He and Fernandez give the Fire a creative spark buttressed by central mids Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause, and spiced by the searing speed of Nyarko as well as forward Dominic Oduro.
He’s also well aware of responsibilities that fall to the older players, which he laughingly accepts as his current status with rookies like Austin Berry and young pros such as Jalil Anibaba taking on important roles. (Pearce, too, has come to MLS, and could square off with Rolfe if the Fire and Red Bulls advance to the conference finals.)
“It’s hard to remember that I’m 29 and in my eighth season professionally,” he notes. “Just looking around and seeing the young guys and trying to remember the awesome feelings and sentiments I had back then in 2005 and 2006, it’s fun to think back on those times and relate to the younger players here now.
“It wasn’t that difficult coming back to these guys. They welcomed me and we spent a lot of time on and off the field getting to know each other. The road trips have helped. I feel real comfortable now, I don’t feel like an outsider, I feel like I’ve jelled really well with the guys.
“But I think that’s been the case for everybody that’s come here throughout the season. That’s a testament to our staff and the players they’ve brought in. They’ve had a pretty easy transition to the team and the culture within the locker room. It hasn’t been too tough for me and I think the other guys would second that opinion.”