D.C. United finds chemistry in Rolfe-Espindola pairing

The veteran forwards combined on both goals in United's 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday.
WASHINGTON — Chris Rolfe had never partnered up top with Fabian Espindola before Wednesday night. But that's not how it felt to D.C. United's versatile veteran.

After Rolfe spent time playing alongside Mexican legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco from 2007 to 2009 with the Chicago Fire, he experienced a flashback of sorts Wednesday. Espindola, like Blanco, defines the forward role rather liberally. There are comparable flashes of skill and tenacity as well.

"That was very similar for me because Blanco liked to drift and roam and he was very technical, a very good player, great vision — just like Fabi," Rolfe said. "I think through those years that's helping me now play off of Fabi a little bit."

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That understanding was evident as Rolfe and Espindola combined on both goals during D.C. United's 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo at RFK Stadium.

With designated player Eddie Johnson suspended, United coach Ben Olsen opted to keep Conor Doyle — the like-for-like target forward replacement — on the bench. Instead, he inserted veteran winger Lewis Neal and asked Rolfe to shift from the flank to forward.

"I don't think we changed much — we played kind of the same," Espindola said. "We tried to keep the ball moving, and we did it more often tonight and we finished chances that we had."

Although both players like to drop into midfield to find the game, Rolfe and Espindola showed the necessary awareness to ensure one of them stayed high to keep Houston's center backs occupied.

Their budding chemistry paid off in the 28th minute when Espindola used a no-look pass to find Rolfe, who baited Dynamo defender David Horst with a cutback move before firing home a left-footed shot.

It was the third goal of the season for Rolfe, who on that finish didn't look like a player making his first start up top of 2014.

"That's actually his normal position, so it's certainly not a genius move by the coach," Olsen said. "Rolfe has a great ability to fill in the holes and play with guys with different attributes."

Rolfe returned the favor in the 63rd minute, looping a ball to the left flank that Espindola brought down before juking Horst and depositing a shot inside the far post.

The goal was a fitting cap to the match for Espindola, who was an authoritative presence creating chances from all over the attacking third. With five goals and five assists, he has already eclipsed the numbers put up by United's leaders in both categories last season.

As the 29-year-old noted, United emphasizes two-way play in midfield rather than deploy a true playmaker — handing him responsibility to facilitate as well as finish.

"Fabian was determined," United captain Bobby Boswell said. "(Houston's center backs) are bigger guys than him, but at halftime he wanted us to make an adjustment to play him the ball more, not less. Anytime you hear your guys say that, it's obviously a good thing."

While Johnson's return means Rolfe will likely go back to his left-sided midfield position Saturday when United visits the New England Revolution, the veteran is pleased that he and Espindola have proven themselves as a viable partnership should the circumstances again call for the duo.

"I was excited to play there today," Rolfe said. "I think that helped with mine and Fabian's chemistry, and got us on the right foot from the beginning."