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MONDAY MLS BREAKDOWN: Ready to Respond

By Kyle McCarthy

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- How do you deal with coming off the bench?

This isn't the first time Chicago forward Chris Rolfe has heard that question from a reporter this season. After coming off the pine for the first seven games of the 2009 campaign, he's probably heard it at least seven times.

If you couple that query with a different but equally awkward interrogatory he faced for much of last season (So, Chris, as a natural striker, how do you like playing right midfield?), Rolfe has considerable experience in hitting just the right tone with his answer.

“That's just something you kind of have to accept,” Rolfe replied. “I'm still competitive and hungry to try and get that spot back. I'm here for the team and the team's playing well. I couldn't be happier with that.”

Strikers of Rolfe's pedigree don't often spend much of their time coming off MLS benches or playing right midfield. In his four-plus seasons with the Fire, Rolfe has tallied 31 goals in 103 games. He has ten U.S. caps to his name and joined Bob Bradley's squad for training camp in January. After spending most of last year in midfield, Rolfe still managed to lead the Fire with nine goals and seven assists.

Last year's production hasn't been enough to earn him a run in the team this season. An untimely stomach virus during training camp sidelined Rolfe and opened the door for Patrick Nyarko. The second-year striker (one goal, two assists) has kept Rolfe out of the team by producing week after week and stretching defenses with his pace.

Nyarko's starting nod didn't keep Rolfe off the field entirely. Fire head coach Denis Hamlett said he made it a point to get Rolfe into every game as a substitute because he thinks Rolfe is an important part of the team.

“The whole idea was to keep him involved,” Hamlett said. “You never know at what point you're going to be called upon. To his credit, every time he was called upon as a sub, he came in and helped us with big assists or big goals. That's being a good pro. That's a guy who understands what it's about being on a good team.”

Being on a good team required Rolfe to make yet another adjustment to his game. It's different coming off the bench, just like it was different playing on the right side of midfield. It's not uncommon for a starter to take 10 or 15 minutes to work his way into the contest. Substitutes don't have the luxury of time when they step onto the field.

Rolfe said he spends more time during the week honing his own game and watching the starters to figure out their tendencies so he can make an immediate impact. The adjustment is a work in progress, Rolfe said.

“It's pretty difficult,” Rolfe said. “Each game demands something different when you come in. You just kind of learn and grasp it over time. It's all mental.”

Rolfe's grasp of those duties (1 goal, 1 assist in 126 minutes) earned him his first start of the season in Saturday night's 1-1 draw with New England. Hamlett praised Rolfe's form and sharpness prior to the match and said that if the match played out as he expected, the Fire would need a sharpshooter like Rolfe on the field.

While the tight, midfield-centric game played out just about as expected, Rolfe didn't seize the one opportunity a sharpshooter is expected to finish. The golden chance came in the 36th minute after Brian McBride bounced a cross his way. Rolfe collected deftly with his right foot, but didn't hit the ball as well as he would have liked. New England goalkeeper Matt Reis closed the angle down and forced Rolfe's shot out for the corner that led to Wilman Conde's goal.

Aside from that chance, Rolfe spent most of his time on the field rather quietly. Nyarko came on to replace him after 63 minutes and made quite the nuisance of himself. Only interventions from Reis and Jay Heaps kept Nyarko off the scoresheet and the Fire out of the win column.

Nyarko's contribution will probably present Hamlett with the same question he's faced every week this season when filling out his starting XI. Nyarko or Rolfe?

Rolfe's heard that question before too. Whatever the decision, he'll likely be ready with a response.

Week Eight – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers

Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Mac Kandji, FW, New York

The Senegalese striker made this selection an easy one by playing a part in every goal in the Red Bulls' 4-1 romp over San Jose on Friday night. He drew the foul that led to Rojas curling a free kick for his first goal and flicked on Carlos Johnson's throw-in at the near post to provide Rojas with his second. Not content with setting up only Rojas, Kandji drove a low ball to far post for Juan Pablo Angel's simple finish for New York's third. Kandji then stripped Kelly Gray and slotted home to put his own name on the score sheet. And he accomplished all of it by halftime. Not a bad day at the office.

What was he thinking? James Riley, DF, Seattle

It's all about composure when Los Angeles comes to town. The Galaxy slow the game down and frustrate opponents. Gregg Berhalter did both of those things when he picked up the ball after conceding a foul in the 57th minute of Sunday's 1-1 draw at Qwest Field.

Safe to say that Riley lost his composure when faced with those tactics. Once the whistle blew, Riley wanted to get the ball back in play quickly. In pursuit of that goal, he tussled Berhalter to the ground in an attempt to get the ball.

“He wanted to take it quickly, I picked it up and was trying to delay the kick and the guy went nuts,” Berhalter said.

Riley then responded to Mike Magee's arm around the back of his neck by grabbing the back of Magee's neck and throwing him to the ground. Both of those actions occurred with referee Tim Weyland (more on him from Seattle coach Sigi Schmid later in this space) and assistant referee Emiliano Monje in close proximity. Weyland at first issued a caution before sending Riley off after consulting with Monje. The final decision surprised the Sounders FC defender.

“It really did happen so fast,” Riley said. “[There was no] [i]ntent for me to strike any player in the game with my hands. I was trying to grab him. He pulled his head away. That’s why the referee has a whistle. He pulls a yellow. Tells me to back off. I do. And it just changes [to red]. You just suck it up and take it on the chin.”

Eleven observations to start the week

1. It's all about tempo for New York. Too often this season, the Red Bulls haven't been able to use their speed effectively. In Friday night's 4-1 win over San Jose, they found their rhythm. Fullbacks Alfredo Pacheco and Carlos Johnson were flying down the flanks. Kandji blew the doors off the San Jose defense with his pace. One of the biggest reasons for New York's quicker tempo: better play in the center of the park. It makes a huge difference to have Albert Celades and Seth Stammler running the engine room.
2. Big save by Danny Cepero to deny Ryan Johnson 15 minutes into that contest. Sure, the Red Bulls were up two goals at the time, but permitting the Quakes an early lifeline would have boosted their sagging confidence and allowed a few doubts to creep in for the home side after a good start.
3. “[Crew midfielder Guillermo Barros] Schelotto has his hands in everything,” Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo said after the Argentine schemer scored on a diving header and propelled Columbus to its first win of the season with a 3-2 victory over the Wizards. “He shows the class that he is tonight. He scores a crucial goal right after we tie it up and we have a little bit of momentum.”
4. “Probably the last three games in a row, we didn’t come away with what we should have,” Wizards forward Josh Wolff said. “We should have gotten a point in Toronto. We got a point against D.C., and we should have gotten three. Tonight, the point was out there. Bottom line: We didn’t deliver.”
5. Pablo Vitti hasn't shown much sharpness in front of goal during his time with Toronto FC, but his passing and his industry have made a positive impact. The latest example came early in the second half of Saturday night's 3-3 draw with D.C. United. Vitti dug out a lost cause in the right corner and drew a foul from Marc Burch to set up a dangerous free kick. Amado Guevara's resulting service and Adrian Serioux's well-placed header did the rest for the Reds' second goal.
6. What a dummy by Jaime Moreno to set up Chris Pontius' second-half tally. Froze everyone in the TFC penalty area.
7. Opposing strikers aren't going to relish running up against New England defender Emmanuel Osei. He is one hard son of a gun.
8. Houston extended its shutout streak to 403 minutes with a 1-0 win over FC Dallas on Saturday night. The mark is the best in the league this season, surpassing the 350-minute streak Seattle compiled earlier in the campaign.
9. RSL coach Jason Kreis is going to go back and look at the tape of Paulo Nagamura's winner in Saturday night's 1-0 victory by Chivas USA and wonder why Nagamura had the chance to finish so sweetly in the first place. Mariano Trujillo's ball over the top caught Chris Wingert out on the right side and allowed Eduardo Lillingston to streak towards the right corner and cross into the middle. Kyle Beckerman didn't get much purchase when he tried to clear Lillingston's cross. Sasha Kljestan headed the mishit clearance towards Nagamura and the Brazilian midfielder did the rest. Shoddy defensive work from two players who usually do much, much better.
10. I thought Los Angeles showed a bit more ambition in the first half than they had shown in recent weeks in grabbing a point in Seattle. The question becomes where did that ambition go after Riley's dismissal in the second half? Up a man, Los Angeles should have pushed forward at least a little bit, but didn't show the inclination to do so even when Edson Buddle made an late appearance.
11. “I’ve known the referee for a long time,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said after watching Tim Weyland's performance in Sunday's draw. “When I was coaching in college we were allowed to list a couple of referees who would not be put on your games. He hasn’t refereed many games that I’ve coached.”
BONUS: Direct from MLS statistical oracle Rick Lawes: eight of the fourteen penalties given in MLS this season have occurred after the 80th minute.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.