Stub

Fire holding two of a kind

they are both legitimate MLS Gatorade Rookie of the Year candidates that are being counted on to help get the "Men in Red" back to the MLS Cup Playoffs after a rare miss last season.

That the Fire have more minutes (4,102), starts (42, tied with New England), goals (12) and assists (9) from their rookies than any other team in MLS might not be surprising -- the list of immediate contributors in the team's recent past includes such names as Carlos Bocanegra, Damani Ralph and Josh Wolff. But what might turn heads is that the two biggest contributors of Chicago's 2005 rookie class were not only not among the top three selections in the MLS SuperDraft -- they weren't the top three Fire draft picks last January in Baltimore.

"[The success] is a lot sweeter. After the draft I was pretty disappointed, especially after being picked 37th overall when I had a good college season," said Segares. "At that moment I just wanted the preseason to start so I could show them what they missed. So many teams let us pass and we've had good seasons, so I think that does make it a little better."

The ascension from unheralded rookies to dependable starters has not been an easy one. While every rookie enters training camp in February with an idea of what professional soccer is like, the realization is that it takes many more months, games and practices to truly appreciate what it takes to play at the next level.

"In college, you can take a few days off, or take it easy in drills. At this level, that's not possible at all," explained Rolfe, who is the first rookie in team history to lead the squad in goals scored at any point in a season. "If you're not holding yourself responsible then other guys are getting on you because you're not playing how you should and they're going to make sure you get everything out of every day of training that you need to. You have to be focused at all times because it's just as demanding mentally as it is physically."

"I was surprised at how tough of a season it is, and especially how competitive a league it is and how every team can beat each other," said Segares. "It's nothing like college, where it's three months and you're out. Here it keeps going and going and it feels as though it's never going to end."

A string of circumstances for the Fire -- injuries and the late preseason transfer of Ralph to Russian side Rubin Kazan -- led to Rolfe getting a chance to contribute immediately. It was something of a shock for the University of Dayton product, but a situation he nonetheless was prepared to take advantage of.

"With Damani leaving and some injuries early on in the year I got stuck in the lineup, and if I would have been at another club I might not have gotten the chance to play this year at all," Rolfe said, who the Fire chose in the third round of the SuperDraft with the 29th overall pick. "That was a bit of a surprise to me, but I was confident in myself that once I got in here and got acclimated, did the right things and worked hard that I could be somewhat successful and help out the team, which I think has happened."

The route to the starting XI for Segares would be much different. After struggling during training camp, the VCU grad found his chance to impress the Fire coaching staff over the first two months of the season through the squad's reserve division contests, performances that showed he was ready to step up to the first team when needed. That chance would come to fruition with a 90-minute performance on May 21 in a 2-1 win against the Colorado Rapids, the first of his 18 starts over the Fire's last 20 contests.

"At the beginning I didn't think I was going to get a chance at all. I wasn't playing how I used to and didn't get in a good rhythm at the start, but after the season started and I got comfortable I felt that I was going to get my chance at any moment," Segares said. "I got that opportunity and got the most out of it, and now the challenge is to stay in the starting XI. It's been a tough season, but it's exciting to see that you can look back at how you started at the bottom and now I'm getting the shot."

It's a shot that both Rolfe and Segares earned, but more importantly the shot in the arm they gave the Fire has helped the squad grind through another grueling MLS campaign and onward towards its chase for a second MLS Cup.

John Koluder is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com.