Time in Denmark pays off for Fire's Rolfe

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Chris Rolfe's memories of playing soccer and living in Denmark aren’t all sunny and joyful.

Of course that wasn’t what Rolfe intended when he first arrived in the country. He proved himself as a talented forward in the MLS during his first five seasons with the Chicago Fire and was ready for another challenge. He signed a contract with Danish Superliga club Aalborg BK in 2009 and joined the team in January 2010.

He hoped to establish himself in Europe and continue building his career, which included appearances with the United States national team. But a hamstring injury in his first season kept him off the field and left him a bit lost in an unfamiliar culture. He describes that period in his life as one of the most trying.

Rolfe’s situation improved -- he scored six goals in 32 appearances -- but his 2 ½ years there fell short of his expectations.

Now five months after leaving Denmark and returning to the Fire, Rolfe says the difficult times overseas have helped him on and off the field.

“It was a great experience for me,” said Rolfe, whose Fire will host the Columbus Crew at Toyota Park on Saturday. “I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I think those 2 ½ years I matured a lot. I gained so much experience and new appreciation, not just the soccer back here, but the life back here in general.

“When I went to Denmark, it was the right time for me to make that change in my life. After being over there for over two years and trying to pursue a different goal, I thought it was time to come back home.”

After battling an ankle injury when he returned to the Fire, Rolfe finally got on to the field in June.

In his second game, a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls, he scored a goal in front of the home crowd at Toyota Park.

Now 16 games into the season, Rolfe has six goals, tied for the team lead, and dished out two assists. The Fire has gone 10-4-2 during those 16 games and has risen to second place in the Eastern Conference.

Fire coach Frank Klopas always assumed he hadn’t seen the last of Rolfe in a Fire uniform. Klopas was the team’s technical director when Rolfe went to Denmark, and the Fire still held the held Rolfe’s MLS rights.

Klopas kept tabs on Rolfe’s career overseas and observed all of his ups and downs from afar. He never doubted Rolfe’s ability, and didn’t hesitate when Rolfe expressed interest in returning to the Fire.

“I think it’s hard to keep guys (with the team) like that that have an opportunity,” Klopas said. “You try to do your best, but in the back of the mind, if the chance is there, I think they want to try the different environment, the different opportunity in Europe.

“It was great that things worked out. Chris had obviously played here, knows the club well, knows the league well. A good player in an important time for us.”

It didn’t take long for Klopas to see that Rolfe isn’t the same player upon his return to the Fire.

“I think he matured as a player,” Klopas said. “As he got older, he got better, wiser -- his ability to make better decisions, his movements, reading the game better and being at the right spots at the right moment.

“His technical ability has obviously gotten better, but he always had that. (He has the) ability around the goal to finish and be dangerous when he gets the ball.”

Fire midfielder Logan Pause has also had the chance to see Rolfe’s evolution. Pause, who has been with the Fire since 2003, witnessed Rolfe’s career from his rookie season to now as a 29-year-old veteran.

“I think the big thing that changed was he went to Europe and struggled with some injuries as he has mentioned,” Pause said. “I think that took a toll on him mentally and also gave him an opportunity to work through that adversity and grow as a person and player.

“He’s just as strong as ever. He’s just a fit, fast, dynamic, youthful player still even being almost 30. A great addition for our team.”

As good as the winning is, Rolfe has also enjoyed the company of his fellow players. He wasn’t that close with his teammates in Denmark, and he wanted that feeling of camaraderie again when he returned to the Fire.

“I missed that a lot,” said Rolfe, an Ohio native. “Coming back, I was really excited about that. That allowed me to put myself out there more, and the guys had a grasp of that.”

Rolfe feels at home again.

“I’ve wanted a home for a while,” Rolfe said. “I feel this is my home now. It’s good to be back. It’s good to come back. Everyone’s treated me well. We’re having success on the field. I couldn’t ask for more.”