Feature: Chris Rolfe
It’s been nearly a decade since Chris Rolfe sat in the visiting locker room at RFK Stadium, answering questions about his first career Major League Soccer goal, which secured the Chicago Fire a 1-1 draw with D.C. United.
It was early April in 2005, and Rolfe was an unheralded 22-year-old rookie out of Dayton, and it was just the beginning for the Fire’s third round draft pick that season. He finished the year as Chicago’s first ever rookie to lead the team in scoring, not to mention shots, shots on goal and tying for the most games played.
Forty-nine goals later, he’s making himself at home in RFK Stadium, where he’s become a crucial contributor and veteran on a D.C. United team that is bouncing back with a vengeance from its underwhelming 2013 season.
“You said it was my 50th? I didn’t know that, thanks for telling me,” Rolfe said following his second goal of the season for D.C. United, the crucial lone tally in United’s 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on May 10.
If Rolfe wasn’t paying attention to his stats – his crisply-taken strike made him the 38th MLS player to reach the 50-goal threshold and tied him with D.C. United teammate Davy Arnaud for 37th on the MLS all-time scoring list – he also probably wasn’t aware that the victory was equally important to his team. With the win, D.C. United snapped a 21-game winless streak away from home, a stretch that dated back to a 1-0 victory at Toronto FC in October 2012.
For Rolfe, the focus is on the present, both form and results.
“It’s huge for our confidence and our belief that we can close out games,” Rolfe told reporters. “We’ve learned from our mistakes.”
Rolfe didn’t get much of a grace period to learn about the team itself before making an impact. Traded from Chicago to D.C. United on April 2, Rolfe came off the bench three days later and scored late to cement a much-needed 2-0 victory over New England, United’s first victory of the season and part of a five-match unbeaten streak.
Rolfe’s consistent ability to produce is what nearly landed him in D.C. during the offseason. He entered the year with 48 regular season goals and 22 assists over eight seasons in Major League Soccer with the Fire, including being named the team’s most valuable player in 2012 following three seasons in Denmark with Superliga club Aalborg BK. He also has 10 career appearances for the U.S. men’s national team. Rolfe registered career bests with nine goals and eight assists in 2008, when he led Chicago to the MLS Eastern Conference Final.
But after 31 appearances (26 starts) and four goals last season, he was made available by the Fire in the re-entry draft – and had serious discussions with D.C. United before deciding just before the draft took place to rejoin his first MLS club.
“That was a tough decision and literally came down to the final hour,” Rolfe told The Washington Post. “At the time, it was the best decision for me and the best opportunity. But I was 100 percent serious about D.C.”
United didn’t let Rolfe get away a second time after Luis Silva suffered an ankle injury against Chicago on March 29, further reducing the depth of a squad that was already missing Chris Pontius.
“He’s such a savvy pro out there,” United head coach Ben Olsen told MLSsoccer.com after Rolfe’s first training session with his new team. “Technically he’s as gifted as anybody in this league. He understands the stuff that seems simple, but is not - the passing, the timing of his runs. He’s just a very, very good soccer player.”
And D.C. United has reaped the benefits. Rolfe has started the last five matches in a row, bringing his veteran savvy and skill to the wide midfield. He delivered his first assist of the season in United’s 4-1 rout of FC Dallas on Apr. 26, and he made the sixth-minute, game-winning strike against the Union look easy thanks to his technical ability and a sneaky curling run to get properly positioned in the box.
After Cristian Fernandez’s blast was deflected, appearing to stymie United’s quality team build-up, Rolfe brought the ball down off his chest and volleyed it home from the penalty spot with a perfect left-footed blast.
“He’s probably one of the better soccer minds in our country,” United captain Bobby Boswell, who has played with Rolfe on the U.S. national team, told The Washington Post when Rolfe arrived. “He’s a great reader of the game, and technically he can do some things that are pretty unorthodox that guys aren’t used to, which is always a challenge when you’re playing against someone like that.”
Good thing Rolfe’s soccer home is now in the locker room at the other end of the hall down inside RFK Stadium – a place he’s happy to be.
“It always seems like it’s dark all the way around and you can just focus on the game. But in the distance, you have the supporters’ groups and the big flags,” Rolfe told The Washington Post. “For me, it’s just a real cool atmosphere despite being a huge stadium. A lot of good moments probably bring out a lot of good sentiment in me, too.”