By Pat Martin, MLS Editor
Bridgeview, IL (Sports Network) -
With a certain player in the lineup this season, the Chicago Fire are 10-4-9, while scoring 25 goals. Without this player, the team is 1-6-2 while scoring just six goals over that span.
With a certain player in the lineup, the Chicago Fire knocked off the top seed in the Major League Soccer playoffs to advance to the Eastern Conference final, scheduled to be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. on Thursday.
With a certain player in the lineup, the Chicago Fire are currently on a 10- game unbeaten streak, the second-longest in team history.
No, that player is not the team's designated player signing and Mexican legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who helped the club to a 7-2-7 record since his arrival on July 29.
That player is American forward Chris Rolfe.
The Fire only have lost twice since Cuauhtemoc Blanco arrived.
"As far as I am concerned, I think we have proved that we are not Cuauhtemoc Blanco's team," said Chicago coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who coached his first game for the fired Dave Sarachan in Blanco's first match with the team. "He plays on our team and we are more than happy with that, but we have many other tools now. Chris Rolfe's contribution has been crucial."
The Fire actually started the season as one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, going 3-1-2 under Sarachan. But in that seventh league match on May 12, Rolfe injured his ankle and missed the next nine league fixtures.
At the time, Rolfe was tied with New England's Taylor Twellman for the league- lead in goals, with four after just six matches. After Rolfe's injury, the team went on a horrific slide, losing six of nine while collecting just one win in that span, costing Sarachan the job he'd held since 2003.
"It was very difficult," Rolfe said of his injury. "At the start of the season I was influential in some of the wins we had and I thought that I could help the team, obviously in an area that we were struggling, which was goal scoring. That is something that I thought I could have been helping with."
Chris Rolfe is also a big reason for Chicago's success.
Since his return to the lineup on Aug. 4, however, the Fire have been one of the hottest teams in the league - with Blanco getting most of the credit for the turnaround.
"We had faith that we had a good group to start with," Rolfe said, "and we're bringing in some good players (Blanco, defender Wilman Conde and forward Paulo Wanchope) and a new coach (Osorio) and we were confident the whole time that we had a chance at this (a berth in the Eastern finals)."
For all the credit that Blanco gets, his four goals and eight assists in 16 starts since his arrival aren't as impressive as Rolfe's eight goals and three assists in 18 starts this season.
"That's great. Obviously that's great," Rolfe said. "That's something that I should be doing with the role that I have on this team. I should be scoring goals, so I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do really."
And while Rolfe's two playoff goals vs. D.C. were crucial in the team advancing to the Eastern final, 3-2 in the total-goals, home-and-home semifinal series, his defensive work from his forward position has also been key.
"I think for an offensive minded player, his contribution defensively is immense," Osorio said. "It's huge, and we all appreciate it very much in this team."
It's about time people outside the team started appreciating what this home- grown player is doing in MLS this season.
Namely, outclassing a legend.