By THOMAS FLOYD
Fire forward Chris Rolfe may have spent two and a half years plying his trade in Denmark, but it's readily apparent the 29-year-old's heart never left Chicago.
For as grateful as Rolfe was for his opportunity to test himself with Superliga side Aalborg BK, the Ohio native never quite settled in with the culture or the club the way he did with the Windy City and the Fire organization.
In April, Rolfe concluded his injury-plagued European escapade and returned to Chicago, newly appreciative of the franchise that drafted him in 2005.
"I missed the camaraderie the most," Rolfe said. "In general, I have a much better perspective on the entire organization and the system that we play and the possibilities and potentials in all of this. It's allowed me to take a step back and look at the situation here in Chicago a little bit differently."
After overcoming an early ankle knock, Rolfe has emerged as a driving force in a surge for Chicago (15-8-5) to second in the Eastern Conference, bagging six goals and two assists in 16 matches.
Since Rolfe entered the starting lineup June 29, the Fire are 8-3-2.
"In one breath, he's the same overall player I knew when he left," said Fire captain Logan Pause, who has been with the club since 2003. "In another breath, he's evolved, I think, much more from a maturity standpoint and from a personal standpoint, a human standpoint, than in soccer."
It's growth Rolfe experienced while dealing with his fair share of hurdles adjusting to life in Denmark, on and off the field.
There were some connections that made his move abroad easier. Early on, he bonded with teammate Marcus Tracy, a compatriot who last week joined the San Jose Earthquakes, as both players rehabbed from injuries. He also stayed in regular contact with U.S. national team defender Michael Parkhurst, who plays for FC Nordsjaelland in Demark.
But Rolfe acknowledged acclimating to a new language and lifestyle developed into a lingering challenge.
"It's just hard breaking into new groups of friends and making your own friends," he said. "Things at the club were fine and good and I got along well with the players, but just forming good relationships outside of soccer was difficult."
When it came to leaving his mark with Aalborg, injuries took their toll, with a long-term hamstring ailment largely contributing to Rolfe only recording six goals in 32 appearances during his tenure.
As Rolfe explained, the hardship helped him "learn to just enjoy the game, to obviously take it seriously and be professional but also find time to enjoy it."
The University of Dayton product, though, did leave the team with at least one moment to cherish. Playing in Aalborg's first home game last summer after the death of teammate Dennis Marshall, a Costa Rican international, Rolfe netted the winning goal in an emotional 2-1 triumph over AGF Aarhus.
"That was big," Rolfe said, "for our team, the community and obviously his hometown where his family was back in Costa Rica."
Now in his second stint with the Fire, Rolfe is producing memorable moments with more regularity while again looking like the figure who scored 36 goals in his first five MLS seasons. Although his versatility makes him an option as a playmaker or winger, the quick, savvy attacker lately has carved a niche up top exploiting the space created by physical Dutch striker Sherjill MacDonald.
"It's been as seamless as anyone could have hoped or imagined," Pause said of Rolfe's transition. "His movement and his ability to get free to get the ball in dangerous spots is incredibly important. Obviously, he's scored goals. In and around the box, he is incredibly talented."
Rolfe also has settled back into the Chicago way of life. Living in Lincoln Park, the player said he now most appreciates the slew of top-notch food options that always are just footsteps away. More generally speaking, Rolfe notes that "there is just so much to the city that I enjoy."
It's a comment telling of someone who, one can quickly gather, feels he is back where he belongs.
"It was a timing thing basically, kind of the same thing that led me over to Denmark," Rolfe said of his decision to return. "The timing was right for that, and it was a good experience. But at the end of the day, I enjoy playing in MLS, I enjoying playing for Chicago, and I enjoy living here. So I'm happy that I gave it a shot in Denmark and Europe, but I felt like it was time to come back home."