The joy in the moment was plain to see, laid bare for the some 40,000 in attendance watching Cristian Roldan score his first goal for the Seattle Sounders.
Andreas Ivanschitz’s free kick swung into the meat of the box, and Roldan’s head was there to greet it, rising above FC Dallas’s Aubrey David and beating Jesse Gonzalez across the line. Roldan wheeled away with a broad smile creasing the corners of his mouth, soon to be mobbed by Tony Alfaro and then everyone else. It took Roldan until his 39th appearance in Rave Green, but the goal finally fell.
There was something else in that smile, a glint of relief about it beaming through from the back. It was a subtle conveyance that yes, Roldan has been good for a good long while now for the Sounders. If all it took was a goal to open the floodgates to that notion, then he’d just gotten it.
At 21, Roldan’s become the youngest consistent contributor on a Sounders team that’s had far deeper worries than whether the young University of Washington product could hold his own. Since joining the team after a 16th overall selection in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, Roldan’s played both wide right and centrally in a 4-4-2, as both the main attacking midfielder and one of the two pivots in a 4-2-3-1 and as one of the three central dominos in the 4-3-3. And now for two different coaches, just miles away from where he made his national name at UW.
If Roldan was a hot up-and-coming prospect after his rookie campaign in 2015, he’s a full-fledged starter now. When Seattle hosts a resurgent Real Salt Lake side this weekend (Sunday, August 14; 4 p.m. PT; FS1; KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360am), nobody in Rave Green has been more consistently quality over the last 16 months than Roldan.
Roldan arrived in Seattle before the 2015 season with no amount of uncertainty swirling about his positional status. He’d been the primary creative hub at UW, but most MLS scouts saw him as more of a sitting midfielder following the MLS Combine. In fact, it was that event that some attributed to his drop in the draft, which allowed Seattle to shrewdly trade up and snag the Generation adidas player with the 16th overall pick.
It was, unequivocally, the steal of the draft for a player most expected to go inside the top five.
Roldan gradually settled into life with the Sounders, earning a rotating starting spot during the summer of 2015 and entering the 2016 season with more positional certainty. After being tried higher and wider, Roldan rapidly developed into a running partner for the usually deeper Osvaldo Alonso. Roldan could, ideally, connect the lines between Alonso and whoever dropped. When Gonzalo Pineda retired after the 2015 season, even more playing time opened.
Since then, Roldan’s been a calm, quiet force casually rebuffing attacks and restarting them while inviting little individual glory. Roldan’s role is not particularly glamorous. He uses his preternatural body positioning to shield possession, his dogged pursuit to clean out attacks and his unnaturally steady ball control to stoke build-ups. But he does none of the glamor work of unlocking defenses like Nicolas Lodeiro, or serving up dead balls on a platter like Andreas Ivanschitz, or crashing in brilliant free kicks like Clint Dempsey. Even at the back, his tackles rarely invite the kind of notoriety Alonso’s received.
Most of his heavy lifting is dirty work that doesn’t show up on stat sheets and rarely makes highlight reels. Perhaps, that is, until that goal against FC Dallas opened more up to the reality of how good Roldan’s truly been this year.
Roldan’s efficiency has never been in doubt, so his 84 percent passing success rate on a quality 45 passes per game is perhaps no surprise. But in 1,562 minutes this year, he’s averaging a pair of tackles per game, an interception per game in addition to the work he does building attacks, which is probably his greatest asset to the whole.
Roldan’s overall utility was never more obvious than when he stepped into a starting role after the departure of former coach Sigi Schmid two weeks ago. In two games under interim Brian Schmetzer, Roldan has been the choice to pair with Alonso as the holding midfielders in the 4-2-3-1. He's benefitted from a lingering ankle injury that has plagued midfielder Erik Friberg, but in those two games, Seattle’s snagged four points, one of which came courtesy of a goal Roldan scored.
Even still, Roldan’s future in the starting XI is hardly certain.
The return of Roman Torres from an ACL injury that’s kept him off the field for nearly a full year will dramatically change the balance of the back line. By extension, the midfield will feel the effects. After a decorated career as a central midfielder (and a national team career that’s featured him at right back), team captain Brad Evans moved to center back to quality reviews for the 2015 season. Torres arrived that August and momentarily took his spot in the XI, but Torres’ injury made that sample size dramatically small.
What happens to the lineup when Torres returns - an eventuality that now seems only a week or two away - is still unclear. But it would be a surprise to see Evans, the team’s emotional leader and unquestioned captain, relegated to the bench. The far more likely eventuality is that Torres returns to partner with Chad Marshall, a pairing that was quite good in limited minutes in 2015, and Evans is bumped back into the midfield, where he’s more comfortable anyway.
That would pair Evans and Alonso together at the base of the midfield in the 4-2-3-1. The odd man out in that scenario is Roldan. Quiet, massively productive Roldan.
That, though, is still some time away. For now, Roldan can only control what’s in front of him, and in that respect few have done more to establish themselves over the past two season than the unflappable Roldan.