Quiet confidence is probably the best way to describe Chris Rolfe, the breakout rookie sensation of the 2005 MLS season. Without so much of a sniff of pro ball before last season, Rolfe fought his way into the Chicago Fire's starting lineup and led the team in scoring in his debut season in MLS.
With just one season under his belt and a handful of appearances with the national team, the University of Dayton product is trying to overachieve again by earning a slot on the World Cup squad. Spend a few minutes with this young man, and you'll walk away convinced that he can and will do it too.
ESPNsoccernet: 2005 was a whirlwind, breakout year for you and 2006 has started promisingly with appearances for the United States national team as it gears up for the World Cup. Did you anticipate the kind of success you had in 2005 and what lies ahead for you in this important year?
CR: I was very fortunate to get the opportunities presented to me in 2005. Going into preseason, I had many concerns and anxieties about what lay ahead including the fact that I only had two to three weeks to prove myself to the coaches. Once I was offered a contract, I started to feel more comfortable. I believed in myself and my abilities that if I were given the chance to play that I could help our team.
Then, fortunately for my career, Damani Ralph signed a deal overseas which opened up a hole in our lineup that I was eager to fill. From that point on, things fell into place for me for the rest of the season. So it's hard to say that I anticipated the success that I had in the 2005 season, but I was confident in myself that I could help the Fire whenever my chance came. However, the national team appearances caught me completely offguard. This coming year will be a major test for me. I'm not the new kid on the block anymore, so I am expecting more attention to be focused on me from the defenses in the league. Many players may have a good season here or there, but the great ones are consistent and continue to improve constantly -- that's my goal.
ESPNsoccernet: Lots of promising MLS players come through the Generation adidas program or were standouts on the youth national team, but neither of these labels fit you. You used your full college eligibility at Dayton, pursued the PDL during the summer as part of the Fire system and then made the jump to MLS almost without hesitation or growing pains. Why is Chris Rolfe so successful when the road is littered with so many more hyped players with more "pedigree" who did not pan out?
CR: I believe that growing up surrounded by great individuals and role models had a great influence on my successes. My father, in particular, taught me that if I were to be successful at anything that I would have to work hard to reach my goals and overcome many obstacles. Surprisingly he was right!
I was very small growing up which put me at a disadvantage to other players my age. When that was used against me, it gave me more inspiration to prove those skeptics wrong. Every level that I have reached, the question always arises, "is he too small?". So I believe that being faced with difficult situations like those on a regular basis prepared me for the similar transition from college to pro, which other players may struggle more with.
ESPNsoccernet: To say that you went under the radar puts it mildly. Selected as the twenty-ninth pick in the draft, you weren't even on several teams draft boards until much later rounds. Does the fact that all twelve MLS sides pass on you provide extra motivation to succeed at the next level?
CR: No I don't believe that being skipped by all 12 teams in the first two rounds bothered me much. At the time I was picked, I was just happy to see my name on the draft board. I never had hard feelings towards any of the clubs for not choosing me, it merely gave me more loyalty to Chicago and a desire to help them as much as possible since they gave me a chance to play.
ESPNsoccernet: You picked Dayton, a moderately successful Atlantic-10 school as your college of choice. What led you to the Flyers and what did you take away from your four years there?
CR: Actually, coming out of high school I was barely recruited. For a long time I didn't think that I would play soccer after high school. When the coaches at UD offered me a scholarship to play, I asked where to sign.
ESPNsoccernet: The defining moment of your season could well have been the classic goal you tallied in the exhibition loss to Milan. Lead us through the goal and what it felt like to literally turn Paolo Maldini to the ground?
CR: The goal against AC Milan is something that I'll never forget. Vieri had just scored the first goal of the game about twenty minutes in, but we didn't back down. We went straight down and attacked them off the kickoff. Justin Mapp made a run down the left side of the field and played a square ball across the top of the box to me. I let the ball run across the front of me, then pulled the ball back through my legs and spun around to collect it on the other side.
To my surprise, Maldini was not there anymore, and I saw a gap where I could get a shot off. Then I hit a low ball off my left foot, as Jaap Stam challenged, back to the post that I turned away from. I don't remember seeing the ball go in, I just heard the roar from our great fans ... and then I woke up from my dream.
ESPNsoccernet: Your rise over the past season is very much of a feel good story in that you come from a small town in Ohio and have risen very quickly through MLS. What sort of grooming resulted in allowing you to achieve this much so soon?
CR: Like I said above, I grew up around great influences including family members, coaches and friends. I grew up in a Christian household that molded me into the person that I am today. Part of that taught me to appreciate the things that were given to me, and to take full advantage of my God-given abilities. I was also fortunate to have great coaches that focused not only on my soccer development, but maybe more on my development as a person. The three that had the most influence on me were my first ever club soccer coaches, Cy and Mary Horvath, and my high school coach Hank Bias. I'm extremely grateful for all of the people who helped develop me into the man I am today, which without a doubt, has allowed me to achieve many things on and off the field.
ESPNsoccernet: In college, you unfortunately earned a little bit of a reputation as injury-prone, yet your rookie campaign was quite healthy. What did you do to prepare your body for the jump to an MLS campaign?
CR: My junior year I came across a mysterious groin injury in the early part of the season, yet no one could diagnose it. I learned to deal with the pain and even changed the way I ran and played in general. Finally a month before my senior season, I had surgery to repair a sports hernia that was blamed for my groin pain. That caused me to miss almost the entire first half of my senior season. That was basically the only injury that held me back in college.
ESPNsoccernet: Your choice was to stay in college and complete four years of school and play your senior season with Dayton, playing two summer seasons in the PDL. How did this road to the professional ranks prepare you for MLS?
CR: After my sophomore year in college I moved away from home for the first time and tried out for the Chicago Fire Reserves of the PDL. The move itself was a big step for me. But if the move was a step, then playing for Mike Matkovich of the Chicago Magic Soccer Club was more like a mountain! "Matko" is a great coach and ended up making me a stronger player mentally among other things. His involvement with that PDL program and his influence on me are what put the final (and possibly most crucial) touches on preparing me for the MLS.
ESPNsoccernet: Sticking on this topic, as someone who decided to buck the current trend for young talents and stay in school, is the NCAA still the best route in this country to develop or is the reserve system now a viable alternative to the college game?
CR: To be honest, this 'trend' was not an option for me at any point, but I believe I would have used my four years of eligibility either way. At this point in time, the most sensible way for young players to make their way into the league is through college. Unfortunately, many college programs don't have the resources necessary to develop players during a crucial four years of their soccer growth. I believe that when the reserve system is truly in place, it will quickly surpass the college soccer route for developing young players.
ESPNsoccernet: It seems that everybody underestimates Chris Rolfe. Third round draft pick with little hype, overlooked for Rookie of the Year, on the periphery of the World Cup squad. After a stellar MLS campaign on a sometimes anemic Fire team, what does Chris Rolfe have to do to get a little respect?
CR: I feel like I have been given respect from a number of people, and I appreciate that. I am currently doing everything that I can to get respect, and that's playing soccer to the best of my ability. Maybe if this season goes well I can attract some more believers. But if I don't, I think I'll survive.
ESPNsoccernet: Having now mentioned the World Cup, you saw some action in November with the national team when Bruce Arena called you up for a friendly versus Scotland. Typically, Bruce Arena is known for wanting to see a fairly extensive body of work from a player prior to receiving a look -- players such as Herculez Gomez and Michael Parkhurst did not receive the same nod you did. Did you anticipate a call-up so soon after your first season?
CR: I was completely caught offguard when I was called up for the Scotland friendly. It was a great feeling of achievement to be rewarded with a call-up after my first season in the MLS. I couldn't have asked for a better ending to the season following our loss in the playoffs.
ESPNsoccernet: Handicap your odds for making the World Cup roster? Do you think that come June, we will see Chris Rolfe on the twenty-three man roster preparing to take on Germany?
CR: At this point it's hard for me to say. Everyone in the January national team camp has done a great job, which should make decisions hard for Bruce. Obviously I would love to join the team in Germany for the World Cup, but what matters most is that we put together the best team to represent our country whether I'm on that list or not.
ESPNsoccernet: Fellow national teamer Clint Dempsey has gotten some recent headlines for his attempts at rapping. Does Chris Rolfe have a secret ability just waiting to be publicized?
CR: I can't even think as fast as Clint raps -- it's amazing. But what I can do is play ping pong. I'm waiting to go on the ITTF Pro Tour, but before I do that I need to polish up my cross-table backhand. Watch for me at the next Olympics.
ESPNsoccernet: The prototypical American forward tends to follow in the Brian McBride mold -- tall, athletic, quick, strong and physically imposing. What do you offer to the national team as more of a finesse player who is not quite as physically imposing?
CR: I think I provide versatility. I can do some things that the bigger forwards can't and vice versa. My whole life I have been the little forward playing with the big forward. Because of those experiences I'm very comfortable playing with a bigger player up front. More specifically, anticipating what they are going to do in certain situations. Along with that, I believe that I could become a player in the midfield also if necessary.
ESPNsoccernet: 2006 is a crucial season for you. You will need to answer critics who are skeptical of your rookie campaign and you are also playing for your coach, Dave Sarachan, who is in the hotseat and has to perform well this year. Personally, what is your approach and expectation for the upcoming campaign?
CR: My approach is the same as always; help the team be as successful as possible. If the team's being successful, more than likely I'm doing the right things. I have my own personal goals as well, but the team goals come first. This should be a good season for the Fire and I'm excited to help make it one.
ESPNsoccernet: Leading the Fire in scoring in his rookie season might create a cockiness issue in some players, but you are more humble and hungry then ever. What drives you to achieve even new levels of success?
CR: Even though I led the Fire in goals last year, there were more than enough chances that I missed or handled the wrong way that I need to learn from. I am a bit of a perfectionist. No matter what is going right, I always see the play or plays that I should have done better with. Some people may see that as a problem, but it just keeps me striving for perfection (which I will never reach, but don't tell my mind that).
Kristian Dyer is a freelance writer who covers MLS and college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org