Sounders FC midfielder Cristian Roldan has been called up to the first U.S. Men’s National Team camp convened by head coach Gregg Berhalter. Much of the fervor surrounding Berhalter’s first January Camp has focused on whether his meticulous game model with the Columbus Crew, which utilized metronomic possession and numerical overloads to unbalance opponents, will translate to the international level.
“We have very clear profiles for what we’re looking at in each position and we just filled in players based on that profile,” Berhalter said in a conference call with reporters. “Everyone was selected based on the profiles that we have for each position.”
Roldan has lined up in numerous positions for the Sounders. That versatility will suit him well as Berhalter re-tools the player pool ahead of the 2019 Gold Cup and 2022 World Cup Qualifying.
Let’s examine how Roldan’s skill set generalizes to his preferred positions within Berhalter’s possession-oriented system.
Since getting the USMNT job, Berhalter has stressed that the national team will focus on using the ball to disorganize the opposition’s defensive shape. While Roldan isn’t a prototypical No. 10, he has lined up in that spot for Seattle with tremendous success, unbalancing opponents with the work he does off the ball. His intrinsic understanding of space and, more importantly, how to generate space for others by dragging defenders out of position with clever runs, will help the USMNT pick apart teams that bunker in a low block.
Roldan lined up as an attacking midfielder in Seattle’s 3-1 drubbing of Minnesota United on April 22 and pitched in with two assists, demonstrating the unique qualities he can bring to the position for the USMNT. When handed the reigns as a No. 10, Roldan has demonstrated an aptitude for creating overloads, combination play and releasing wide players for box crosses – all of which are cornerstones of Berhalter’s game model.
Much like the Crew under Berhalter, the Sounders have employed a 4-2-3-1 for much of the last two-and-a-half years. Roldan has spent most of his minutes in the double-pivot, operating as a hybrid No. 6/8.
Opta table comparing key midfield statistics for between Roldan and Columbus Crew midfielders Wil Trapp and Artur from the 2017 MLS regular season.
When paired with Osvaldo Alonso or Nicolás Lodeiro, the California native adopts a role similar to that of Columbus midfielder Wil Trapp. In Berhalter’s system, the No. 6 will drop between the two center backs in the build-up of phase, creating a numerical advantage as he looks to switch the ball to one of the wingbacks or play a line-breaking pass to the No. 8. As the 2017 campaign showed – he tallied 1,809 successful passes, 259 recovers and 102 successful tackles – Roldan thrives when tasked with controlling the midfield.
Perhaps the most effective role for Roldan in Berhalter’s game model is as a box-to-box, all-action central midfielder. When paired with Gustav Svensson, Roldan has been pivotal in the Sounders as he creates overloads on the flanks and circulates possession. In Seattle’s 2-1 road victory over Toronto FC on May 9, Roldan put on a clinic as the No. 8 as he played the line-breaking pass that set up Handwalla Bwana’s game-winning goal.
Defensively, Berhalter prefers for his teams to defend in a middle block while marking out critical spaces. This scheme requires the central midfielders to both identify dangerous entry passes on the fly and cover a ton of ground, which perfectly suits Roldan’s style of play.
The greatest similarity between Brian Schmetzer’s and Berhalter’s preferred systems is the role of the wide midfielders, who are tasked with pinching inside and combining with the overlapping full backs. Roldan spent the majority of 2018 operating as a right-sided attacking midfielder, linking up with Kelvin Leerdam and picking opponents apart with his cerebral movement, which saw him register four goals and nine assists.
Although Roldan flourishes when his team dominates possession, his time as a right midfielder has exhibited his efficiency in transition. That adaptability will prove useful as the USMNT gears up for the Gold Cup.
Admittedly, this is a bit of a stretch. But it’s a positional transition that could suit CR7 at the international level. Right-back Roldan has become a bit of a cult hero for his ability to create goals as an overlapping fullback. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time a Sounders central midfielder has broken into the national team as a right back.