In discussing D.C. United’s latest acquisition, Ben Olsen referred to Chris Rolfe as “kid.” Indeed, the longtime Chicago Fire attacker looks younger than his 31 years should suggest, but there is no masking his experience in MLS and deep ties to both United personnel and RFK Stadium.
Nine years ago, fresh from the University of Dayton, Rolfe posted his first pro goal in Washington against a then-active Olsen and United’s current captain, Bobby Boswell. Seven months later, he made his U.S. national team debut against Scotland, sharing Glasgow’s Hampden Park with Olsen and Santino Quaranta, now United’s TV analyst.
Later in his career, Rolfe worked in U.S. camps with Eddie Johnson, the centerpiece of United’s offseason overhaul.
Reconnected with old friends, Rolfe aims to fill a void left by Chris Pontius’s long-term hamstring injury and Johnson’s probable World Cup assignment this summer. In the short term, beginning Saturday night against visiting New England, he also will help compensate for Luis Silva, sidelined several weeks with a sprained ankle.
“I love the kid,” said Olsen, who’s not even six years older than Rolfe. “I really think he is going to help us. He’s versatile. His execution is front of goal is as good as anyone in this league. He’s a classy player. I think it’s a good fit.”
United angled to acquire Rolfe in December after Chicago declined to exercise his contract option. With Rolfe available in the reentry draft, United engaged in serious talks with his agent. Before United could claim his rights, though, he re-signed with the Fire.
“That was a tough decision and literally came down to the final hour,” Rolfe said. “At the time, it was the best decision for me and the best opportunity. But I was 100 percent serious about D.C.”
Early in the season, however, Rolfe slipped on the depth chart and became expendable. After appearing in two matches, he was dealt Wednesday for allocation money. Chicago also agreed to retain an undisclosed amount of his salary, estimated at $200,000, on its books.
Rolfe was in his eighth season with the Fire, a tenure interrupted in 2010 and 2011 for a spell with Danish club Aalborg. He totaled 48 regular season goals in Chicago, with a high of nine in 2008 and a low of four last year.
The idea of playing alongside Johnson intrigues him. “I believe I know how Eddie likes to play and ways to make him effective and be his best,” Rolfe said of Johnson, who did not score in United’s first three matches.
United coveted Rolfe’s versatility; he has served as a withdrawn forward, left wing and central midfielder. Olsen said he would not hesitate to use Rolfe on Saturday even though he has had just two training sessions to familiarize himself with new teammates.
“I am more comfortable using him because he knows us and we just played them,” Olsen said, referring to United’s 2-2 draw with the Fire last weekend, in which Rolfe entered in the 89th minute at RFK. “He knows what we are about.”
Rolfe knows — and likes — RFK. And not just because he also scored his third career goal and a 2007 playoff strike there.
“It always seems like it’s dark all the way around and you can just focus on the game. But in the distance, you have the supporters’ groups and the big flags,” he said. “For me, it’s just a real cool atmosphere despite being a huge stadium. A lot of good moments probably bring out a lot of good sentiment in me, too.”
Rolfe sees promise in United, which has taken small steps forward the past two weeks despite a 15-game winless streak in league play dating to August.
“The way I have seen this team already play at moments during the season, I know there is so much potential,” he said. “It’s only going to take a little more time — and patience — for us to get over that hump. The possibilities are there.”