During Chicago's USOC fourth round matchup against the Columbus Crew last week, Dilly Duka took a knock to the head in the first half that left him a bit out of sorts. He played on but was subbed out at halftime of a level match that Chicago would eventually go on to win. Much of the reason for that victory came as a result of a talk between Patrick Nyarko and Chris Rolfe; a talk they not only had at halftime but one they'd also been discussing since Rolfe returned to the Fire in April 2012. The play that came as a result of that talk was a 77th minute cross off the foot of Rolfe to an unmarked Nyarko on the back post. The easy header was the eventual game-winning goal.
“We've talked about a play like that since the day I came back (to Chicago),” Rolfe said after the match which was pushed back a day due to storms. “I knew he would be over there, and we had a lot of guys running through the box. We actually talked about it at halftime. We knew we had space open on the far side, so it's something that he and I were definitely on the same page about.”
The play was not only the game winner, but it also gave supporters a glimpse of what could become more a part of the tactical fabric of the Fire heading into the second half of the 2013 season. That glimpse came from a seemingly innocuous substitution at halftime. With Dilly Duka still reeling from his first half bell-ringer, the former Crew midfielder exited in lieu of Maicon Santos. The move, facilitated because Klopas lacked a true winger on the bench, caused Chris Rolfe to go out wide while Santos slotted up top next to Mike Magee.
As important as the header was in moving the Fire into the next round of the US Open Cup it was the wing play and cross from Rolfe that is actually more intriguing. Not because he was in a position unfamiliar to him or because his service was surprising but because of a fast-approaching transfer window. The Fire are not hiding their intentions to bring in a striker when that window opens. Chicago has yet to find their striker but rumors in recent days of Carlton Cole being petitioned is enough to tell supporters that the front office is at least attempting to bring a difference maker into the fold as the team looks to turn the tide on a 3-7-3 start.
Seeking out a scoring threat up top isn't something new for the Fire but a perfect storm of underwhelming play from Sherjill MacDonald, Joel Lindpere, and to a lesser degree Dilly Duka in 2013 has created a situation that caused mounting frustration and concern throughout the early part of the season. It's also a situation however, that could be working itself out in small increments as the window approaches. Earlier in the season, it seemed Lindpere, Duka, Rolfe, and MacDonald were all foregone conclusions as starters. Much like the woes of 2012 that witnessed Rafael Robayo barely crack the Starting XI and Federico Puppo be little more than a late game sub prior to both shipping out in July, Klopas gave this year's marquee players roughly half the season before opting on a different route. Those moves seem to be paying dividends in spite of the work yet to be done.
In talking about the 2nd half of the USOC match and perhaps knowing that Chicago is looking further into options up top Rolfe didn't shy away from talk about playing on the wing instead of at forward. “If that's the place where I can help the team and I can do my best, which I think today probably was, that's fine with me. I'll do the work, and I think they know that I'll work both sides of the ball even though I'm not that good on the defensive side (chuckles).”
Rolfe also acknowledged the pressure he's felt in the opening weeks of the season as Chicago's main offensive threat. Other clubs picked up on it as well and many have been effective in shutting him down, making it difficult for Rolfe when getting the ball at his feet. That has changed a bit with the arrival of Mike Magee from LA. “I think it's been good for me to have another guy who's going to come and get the ball to give me more freedom to run deep and get forward. It's gone pretty well,” said Rolfe. “The fact that we're creating more offensively, and Mike's done a great job scoring. We also brought Alex in (the lineup), so it's taken a bit of the responsibilities off my shoulders allowing me now to focus on the things I'm good at.”
Despite the current fall from grace of Joel Lindpere and Sherjill MacDonald, in addition to injury spells to Duka, Pause, and Friedrich early on in the season Chicago's lineup woes seem to be slowly fading. Players like Daniel Paladini, Alex, and Santos have come in and done well whether in a starting role or subbing in. A healthy Duka, still young and showing promise can be a viable option on either wing especially with the nature of both Nyarko's and Rolfe's injury woes throughout their careers. A move to the wing for Rolfe is also certainly within the realm of possibility, even more so as the July window approaches. He has played there before with some success. Denis Hamlett used him out wide during the 2009 season and he also got minutes in Denmark with Aalborg on the outside.
“I'm not worrying about getting the ball from the defenders at my feet and turning; passing out wide, going to support, getting the ball there then switching it; then getting in the box and trying to score. Now it's easier for me if you just put me in a spot and say 'This is your role, this is your area, do what you're good at. For me, if that's out wide, I think my feet are clean enough I can get out of situations. I'm a decent passer. I can hit shots from distance and I'm good at running at guys. If that's where I am, I know right off the top of my head, that's what I'm going to do......It makes it much more simple when I'm playing that way rather than 'Chris, you're in the middle, figure it out.'”
With the writing on the wall that a striker is likely coming it would appear Rolfe's future with the club lies out wide opposite Patrick Nyarko. While the question remains as to what that means for the likes of Joel Lindpere and Sherjill MacDonald there's no doubt the play in recent days for Chicago has been exponentially more positive than it was during the dismal 0-4-1 start to the season. While much of the turnaround has to do with the insertion of Mike Magee and Bakary Soumare into the lineup, the addition of another striker or playmaker will give Rolfe the ability to play a more relaxed, free role for the club as they continue to mount a climb in the Eastern Conference standings.