Teams wise to Fire, focus on denying Rolfe time on the ball

Chris Rolfe

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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Chris Rolfe’s days of roaming free in the opposing team’s half are officially over.

Actually, those days have been over for awhile, as teams have started assigning one man to mark the Fire forward, sometimes for the entire game. But the trend was especially noticeable when Clyde Simms shadowed him last Saturday at Gillette Stadium, where space simply wasn’t available.

“It’s a little bit more of a challenge finding the ball,” Rolfe told MLSsoccer.com. “I think it makes me work a little bit harder to find spots and then, on top of that, the timing with the passes coming into me is going to have to be at the right moment. It makes it a little bit difficult for all of us when a guy is marking me like that, but on a grass field with more space, it’s less noticeable.”

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Rolfe and his teammates noticed the change about 10 games ago, after the 29-year-old’s introduction into the lineup helped the Fire surge up the table. But Chicago’s leading goalscorer hasn’t scored in the last four games, which include three losses.

“I feel like we have not done very well making adjustments to that because he’s one of our most dangerous guys,” midfielder Patrick Nyarko told MLSsoccer.com. “I tell him in training, ‘We need you on the ball, so wherever you can find the ball, just run there. I personally will find you.’ He’s too important to be marked out of the game for us.”

Since Rolfe’s insertion into the lineup in June, the Fire have emphasized that Rolfe needs to move up the field instead of drifting back. His job is to find the space in between the opposition’s midfield and defense, and captain Logan Pause thinks his positioning is more important now than ever.

“We have to do a little bit more of getting him higher up the field, closer to [forward Sherjill MacDonald] so he doesn’t need to come back so deep,” Pause said. “Whether he occupies one of their midfielders or one of their backs, you want him in between those lines, where he can pick the balls up and turn and start our attack from there.”

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The Fire aren’t as worried about the tactic as they get set to face D.C. United in a crucial Eastern Conference clash on Saturday at Toyota Park, although they still expect Marcelo Saragosa to follow him tightly after the Brazilian marked him in D.C.’s 4-2 win on Aug. 22. On a bigger field, more space opens up when teams elect to man-mark one player.

Still, Nyarko thinks Rolfe’s ability to get the ball at his feet is crucial.

“He’s too important not to get the ball,” Nyarko said. “I tell him to find space wherever. He needs to get on the ball to get rhythm. It doesn’t matter where he gets the rhythm from. He can get it in the midfield, get the ball, get some touches going.”