Over the coming weeks, The MLS Zone will post a series of exclusive interviews with young stars from around the league. The focus of our first-ever Rising Stars feature is Chicago Fire forward and United States National Team member Chris Rolfe.
Weight: 145 lbs.
Hometown: Kettering, OH
Team: Chicago Fire
National Team Caps: 6
Regular season - 6 goals, 3 assists (19 games, 18 starts)
Postseason - 2 goals, 0 assists (3 games, 3 starts)
The MLS Zone: Chicago was one of the hottest teams down the stretch. What was the biggest change over the summer that turned the team into serious contenders?
Chris Rolfe: Some may think the biggest change of the season was the addition of Blanco, but in my opinion it was the acquiring of Juan Carlos. He helped bring some life back into the team and was very influential in other areas like defining player roles and instilling confidence.
TMZ: Heading into the final game of the regular season against Los Angeles, was there any doubt that the club could lock up the final playoff spot? What was the atmosphere like for that game? Was it satisfying to know that your club was solely responsible for keeping David Beckham and the Galaxy out of the postseason?
CR: We believed going into that game that we would be moving onto the playoffs, which I would assume was the same for L.A. We had been on an unbeaten streak and knew we had the ability to beat them, especially at home.
There was a buzz in the air before that game that I hadn’t witnessed before for an MLS match. I don’t know if it was due to the fans’ expectation of Beckham, our unbeaten streak, their unbeaten streak, our final regular season game, the importance of the game or a combination of it all. Whatever it was, that energy made for an exciting and emotional game.
TMZ: In the playoffs, Chicago was eliminated by the New England Revolution for the third consecutive year. Has there been any satisfaction in watching New England go on to lose in the final?
CR: Not really. I was happy to see Nate Jaqua win a cup this year, but I was also disappointed that Steve Ralston got so close again and went home empty-handed. New England has been fortunate to play in a good number of finals, but they are hard to get to. Hopefully, that wasn’t Steve’s last opportunity to win an MLS Cup… well, actually, I suppose I hope it is because we need to bring some trophies back to Chicago – sorry Steve.
TMZ: The Fire opened a new stadium – Toyota Park - in 2006 and went 6-3-6 in their first full season there. What are your feelings about the new soccer-specific stadium and do you think it’s important that all teams in the league have a similar facility?
CR: I think it’s great to have our own facility with a practice field on-site. As more teams get their own stadiums, I think it will increase the public’s interest in going and watching the games live. The atmosphere created in a soccer-specific stadium is significantly better than that of any non-soccer specific stadium in the MLS. So, yes I do think it’s important for all teams to have their own stadiums specifically built for soccer as soon as it’s possible.
TMZ: Chicago opted to sign a Designated Player, Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Can you talk about the effects of his signing from both on-field and off-the-field perspectives?
CR: Cuauhtemoc has been a great addition to our team. He has been great on the field as well as off the field. He’s got a great personality and he’s a great competitor. Of course, he is very talented on the field and the type of player that we were in need of at that time. Overall, his addition was key to our successes last year.
TMZ: How is Temoc’s English? How is your Spanish?
CR: His English when he left was closely limited to “What’s up man?” or something close to that! My Spanish education consists of 4 classes taken during high school. However, I had some great teachers back then that actually made me learn the subject (how we hated them...), so I have been known to put together a coherent sentence in Spanish from time to time.
TMZ: Not every signing can be as successful as Blanco and defender Wilman Conde (see Paulo Wanchope). Looking ahead to 2008, what areas do you think the team needs to focus on most to get over the hump and make it to MLS Cup?
CR: That’s a very difficult question, but Juan Carlos just made it very simple for me to answer – we need to focus on finding a coach.
TMZ: You started two games for the U.S. national team in 2007, both early in the year, but were not called up for either Gold Cup or Copa America. Has coach Bradley communicated anything to you about your status with the national team as the U.S. heads into a World Cup qualifying cycle?
CR: This summer was tough for me because of my ankle injury, but it was great to watch us win the Gold Cup in Chicago. However, I haven’t heard anything from Bob about this summer and the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
TMZ: An ankle injury shelved you for several months early in the season, at a time when you were setting the league on fire, no pun intended, by scoring four goals in your first six games. How hard was it to be sidelined for an extended period of time while your team struggled to score goals without you?
CR: That was one of the more difficult stretches of my soccer career. I believed that I could help the team get out of the funk we were in if I could just get healthy. I went through a similar situation in college my junior year when I had a mis-diagnosed sports hernia. It is one of the worst feelings I’ve experienced (but maybe that’s a sign that I’ve lived a very fortunate life).
Just knowing that I could personally be the missing link that could help my friends/teammates fulfill their goals and dreams was the most difficult part for me during that time. The feelings that I had in college are still with me today, and I’m sure these feelings will be also.
TMZ: As a forward, which defenders in the league do you least look forward to going up against?
CR: There are some very good, athletic defenders in the league, some of which are on our team. Eddie Pope, Jimmy Conrad and Eddie Robinson are just a few.
TMZ: What part of your game improved the most in 2007. Where could you stand to improve more?
CR: Thanks to Coach Osorio, I was able to learn more about playing in the midfield. I’d say 95% of my playing time after injury was in the midfield and I had a great group around to help me learn the position quickly. Chris Armas, Logan Pause, Cuauhtemoc, and Coach were all key players in helping me make that transition. Everything still needs improving…
TMZ: Going overseas to play in Europe is a goal for many of the young American players. How important is this to you and where would you most like to play?
CR: Going overseas is something that intrigues me. I am interested in making a move to another league at some point, but I’m not sure where. Once I pinpoint that I’ll write back and let you know.
TMZ: Which players do you emulate or idolize?
CR: To be completely honest, I’m not much of a professional soccer fan, so I can’t pull out the name of some random player and impress you all. However, I’ve been impressed with Brian McBride’s successes both here and in England, so I really respect what he’s done. I’ve also had the benefit of working closely with Chris Armas, and he would be the player that I would like to emulate on and off the field.
TMZ: What are your plans for the off-season?
CR: My off-season will be full of relaxing, reading and enjoying the aspects of the city of Chicago that I couldn’t while in-season. Of course, I will be able to spend the holidays at home with my parents and family.
TMZ: In closing, is there anything you’d like to say to the team’s fans?
CR: Sure... quit setting off flares in our goal mouth when we are defending a corner/free kick. Thanks – The Team.
Oh, and thanks for all the support even during the rough times! We love you. But seriously, quit throwing smoke bombs at Pickens.