Let's play a little trivia. Name the Chicago Fire Career Regular Season Goal-Scoring Leader. If the name Ante Razov was not at the tip of your tongue, it's time to bulk up on your Chicago Fire history. Razov holds any kind of goal related record you can imagine; shots (617), hat tricks (2), offsides (184), game-winning goals (23), penalty kick goals (12), multi-goal games (16), and of course just goals (76). The American forward from Whittier, California was so dominant for Chicago between 1998-2004, his individual season records dominate the first 3 or 5 slots of every Single Season Highs the Fire have in goal related categories. Jamaican forward Damani Ralph's back to back seasons of 11 goals in 2003 and 2004 are notable but Ante Razov is by far the best scoring threat to ever wear a Chicago Fire uniform.
Here's a question that even the Fire die-hards might have trouble answering. Who is the second Chicago Fire Regular Season Goal-Scoring Leader? Peter Nowak? Josh Wolff? Damani Ralph? Nate Jacqua? No, close, no and no. The answer might surprise you after the break.
The second Chicago Fire Regular Season Goal-Scoring Leader is Chris Rolfe. His 36 regular season goals pale in comparison to Razov's 76 but Rolfe was a steady goal scorer for Chicago in his five seasons between 2005 and 2009. He never scored more than 9 goals in one year but he also never scored less than 6. Unfortunately for the Fire, Rolfe decided to leave the team after five stellar seasons to pursue his options and look for better pay in Europe. The American forward from Kettering, Ohio landed with Danish Superliga's AaB following the 2009 Chicago Fire season.
His departure marked an exodus of Fire players that contributed to the team's 2009 Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Gonzalo Segares joined Rolfe's pursuit to play club soccer somewhere outside of the United States. Bakary Soumare was transferred to French club Boulogne before the season even ended. Brandon Prideaux and Diego Gutierrez retired from professional soccer.
Those six players combined for about a third of the Fire's 2009 Regular Season minutes. When you factor in the playing time time Jon Busch and John Thorrington gave that year, you have eight players that accounted for almost half of the 27,000 regular season minutes in 2009 contributing essentially zero minutes the next season. Busch was infamously cut the week before the start of the 2010 regular season. Thorrington was frequently injured in 2010 to the point he only played in five games.
Take a minute and think about the fact that the last two years have seen the hiring of head coaches (Carlos de los Cobos and Frank Klopas), the firing of head coaches (Denis Hamlett and Carlos de los Cobos), the arrival and departure of Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo, the retirements of C.J. Brown and Brian McBride, the trades of Tim Ward, Calen Carr, Dasan Robinson, and Justin Mapp, and the departures of others including Wilman Conde, Baggio Husidic, Andrew Dykstra, John Thorrington, and Peter Lowry. That's enough incomings and outgoings to break the turnstiles at U.S. Ceullar and Wrigley Field.
In this chaotic environment of seemingly constant turnover, it's not surprising that Rolfe's solid tenure is some times overlooked.
If you put those MLS statistics in front of someone in a blind test of whether or not they would take that player, 99.9% would ask "When can he sign on the dotted line?". New York's front office might ask how many people know his name. Toronto FC might demand he sign a contract without a no-trade clause. They would still take him in the end.
Rolfe continues to play at a high level for AaB scoring 6 goals in 33 games over two seasons. The Fire could use another player that can play on the wing or up top and we know Rolfe can do both. Rolfe's return would be a positive move among fans who remember him well. He is an American so the Fire could save one of their other international spots for another high impact player. The biggest downside to a return of Rolfe would be that he turns 29 this Tuesday, January 17. It's not the end of the world, but he may be a step slower, if not immediately, almost certainly in the next year or two.
Fox Soccer's Ives Galarcep threw this note out earlier in the week:
One forward who may make his way back into MLS is former Chicago Fire standout Chris Rolfe. Sources tell FOX Soccer that Rolfe is looking to return to MLS, but it is unclear whether the league and Rolfe will be able to agree on contract terms.
Just exchanged messages with Rolfe. He's out of contract at end of season, said if the situation is right, he'd "be happy to return to MLS."
Rolfe also did say that he hasn't ruled out any possibilities yet. Returning to MLS by no means a guarantee - He's just open to possibility.
USMNT Allocation Ranking
In the often frustrating world of Major League Soccer rules, the Chicago Fire would almost certainly not have first dibs on a player they originally drafted and saw give his heart and soul to the club for half a decade... even if Rolfe's top priority was to play for Chicago. As was discussed in yesterday's article when referring to Brian McBride's signing with his hometown team, returning USMNT team players are subjected to the Allocation Ranking.
The allocation ranking is the mechanism used to determine which MLS club has first priority to acquire a U.S. National Team player who signs with MLS after playing abroad, or a former MLS player who returns to the League after having gone to a club abroad for a transfer fee. The allocation rankings may also be used in the event two or more clubs file a request for the same player on the same day. The allocations will be ranked in reverse order of finish for the 2010 season, taking playoff performance into account.
Once the club uses its allocation ranking to acquire a player, it drops to the bottom of the list. A ranking can be traded, provided that part of the compensation received in return is another club's ranking. At all times, each club is assigned one ranking. The rankings reset at the end of each MLS League season.
Hot Time In Old Town recently put up a USMNT Allocation Ranking widget on the right hand of the front page so you can always check where Chicago currently stands on the list.
2012 Allocation Order
1. Montreal Impact
2. Vancouver Whitecaps
3. New England Revolution
4. Toronto FC
5. Chivas USA
6. San Jose Earthquakes
7. D.C. United
8. Portland Timbers
9. Chicago Fire
10. Columbus Crew
11. FC Dallas
12. New York Red Bulls
13. Philadelphia Union
14. Colorado Rapids
15. Seattle Sounders
16. Sporting KC
17. Real Salt Lake
18. Houston Dynamo
19. LA Galaxy
If Chicago decides they want Rolfe or almost any other USMNT player signing with MLS after playing club soccer in another country, they have two options. First, they can wait for the 8 teams in front of them to pass on signing Rolfe. Second, the Fire could make a trade with a team higher in the ranking to grab their spot if it Rolfe drops to that team. With Chris Rolfe, Chicago would probably have to make a deal with Jesse Marsch's Montreal Impact. Long-time Fire fans would bemoan trading with yet another Canadian club to get around to the rights of an American player. Chad Barrett and Chicago's 2009 first round pick were shipped to Toronto FC in 2008 to make the aforementioned Brian McBride signing go through. Chicago found themselves on the other end of these trades in 2011 when they traded their allocation ranking spot to the Seattle Sounders for a first round pick in the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft. Seattle used the spot to acquire forward Sammy Ochoa.
One thing you might notice about Chris Rolfe's career path is that it doesn't exactly follow Brian McBride's. It certainly is better than Sammy Ochoa's. The Allocation Ranking isn't only for the stars of the USMNT. It's for anyone that has a single whiff of the international action. Sammy Ochoa hasn't even played for the senior USMNT. His experience is limited to U-20 and U-23 squads. The USMNT experience for any player doesn't even have to be recent. Again we can use the example of Ochoa because he hadn't been called up to any U.S. soccer national team since 2008, the same year Rolfe received his last USMNT call-up. If Chris Rolfe does sign with MLS, he will be put through the Allocation Ranking. Look for this to happen this summer.
Lee Nugyen & Weighted Lotteries
The situation could be worse. Chicago could not have any control over obtaining Rolfe as witnessed by the curious case of Lee Nguyen. Nguyen is a Texas born soccer player that turned down a contract from Major League Soccer back in 2005 to try and get a bigger contract elsewhere. He succeed with contracts in Holland and Denmark's top leagues. Nguyen even went on to become the highest paid athlete in Vietnam. For a variety of reasons he decided to return to America in 2012. He finally signed a contract with Major League Soccer this past November after years of rumors.
Rather than sending him through the USMNT Allocation Ranking (Nguyen has three U-23 and three USMNT call-ups in 2007), the league decided to put Nguyen through a weighted lottery. Quoting MLS Roster Rules again so we get it just right:
Some players shall be assigned to MLS teams via the weighted Lottery process. Any team assigned a player through the lottery in any particular season shall not be assigned another lottery player that season unless and until all teams have received a lottery player or have agreed to waive their option to participate in a Lottery. The players made available through lotteries include:
(i) Generation adidas players signed after the MLS SuperDraft;
(ii) Draft eligible players to whom an MLS contract was offered but who failed to sign with the League prior to the Draft.
The weighted lottery takes into consideration each team's performance over its last 30 regular season games and the most recent postseason. The team with the worst record over its last 30 regular season games (dating back to previous season if necessary and taking playoff performance into account) will have the greatest probability of winning the lottery. Teams are not required to participate in a lottery. Players are assigned via the lottery system in order to prevent a player from potentially influencing his destination club with a strategic holdout.
The league will not comment directly on why Nguyen was put through a lottery. However, we can assume that clause '(ii)' kicked in when Nguyen refused to sign that contract way back in 2005 when he was SuperDraft eligible. That's a long time for someone to conduct a 'strategic holdout'. I hope Nguyen's plan wasn't to wait for five years for MLS to establish a club in Vancouver, pass on their disastrous first season, and then sign, because the Whitecaps won his lottery and Nguyen totally figured out how to game the system.
The Fire are said to be one of the clubs that were interested in Lee Nguyen in 2010 but when it came time to enter the weighted lottery this year, Chicago sat it out. Many things changed since 2010. The head coach for starters. It's possible the Fire were confident they were going to sign players that were more talented than Nguyen. The roster picture is looking pretty tight. Nguyen would have clogged up a spot if Chicago wasn't planning on playing him and couldn't find any trade partners. Another negative consequence of entering a weighted lottery and winning is that you do not get to enter another one for the rest of the regular season.
When Dearborn, Michigan native Soony Saad opted to sign with MLS this summer instead of going abroad, he was placed in a weighted lottery under the same (ii) clause. Chicago, Chivas USA, Portland, and Kansas City all participated and KC ended up getting his rights. Saad had been a prolific goal scorer that was projected to be a top 5 pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft if he left college earl for the draft so it was odd to see only four teams participate. I'm not aware of any top collegiate candidates that might sign this summer but I sure wouldn't have wanted to see the Fire and Lee Nguyen sitting on the sidelines of a weighted lottery for a Saad like player.
Chicago continues to make good choices in MLS' world of acquiring players that at times resembles being at the Chuck E. Cheese gift center. It'd be nice if everything falls into place and we have the proverbial tickets and place in line we need to get Chris Rolfe back. As with some of the other best American soccer players out there, there's certainly a counter and a check-out register between club and player.