This is a feature in Issue 24 of Sounders Monthly, Sounders FC's original magazine. They are available for free at The Ninety, Soccer Celebration, GuestLink Services locations and Membership Central as well as the Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and South gates.
When Cristian Roldan looks around the practice field at Starfire Sports Complex, there aren’t too many familiar faces from when he first joined the Seattle Sounders as a wide-eyed 19-year-old rookie back in 2015.
There’s actually only one to be exact: Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who was acquired by Seattle via trade from Toronto FC prior to the start of the 2014 season. That makes Roldan the second-longest tenured player on the roster at the age of 24. With that distinction comes a whole new set of responsibilities.
Roldan poses on the beach at Seahurst Park in Burien | All photos by Jane Gershovich
Now in his fifth MLS season, Roldan has become a leader by necessity. He’s one of the primary vocal presences in a locker room that still features plenty of older veterans. While it’s a task Roldan says he’s welcomed, he admits it may have arrived sooner than he anticipated when he first arrived in Seattle.
“It’s a bit odd,” Roldan said. “Stef is the only player that’s been here longer than me and that’s rather interesting because I’m 24 and I have to embody a little bit more leadership. Not a lot of teams have a 24-year-old that’s leading by example and also vocally. So, in that sense I’ve embraced that role. It feels a bit odd, but I’m happy to play that role.”
In a way, though, Roldan has been preparing for this for a while. Thinking back to that rookie season, he says going pro at 19 forced him to grow up quickly. He had to earn the acceptance of what was a veteran-laden group coming off a 20-win season and a Supporters’ Shield trophy. He played in 22 games in that 2015 season, starting 11, before breaking through as a full-time starter on the 2016 team that won an MLS Cup title.
“I think growing up fast is, number one, at 19 you’re in a locker room full of older guys,” Roldan said. “Especially my first year there were a lot of older guys. And I had to fit in as soon as I could and it was tough. I’m not going to lie.
“The second year I felt like I was able to take a bigger leap into both being more of an adult, more mature, and also on the field just getting better and understanding the culture within the locker room,” he continued. “I attribute a lot of that to guys like Jordan [Morris] coming in and just feeling like I’m part of the team. I think naturally it’s progressively gotten better. I think my understanding of where I’m at on the field and within the team, I feel like I’ve gotten every year a little bit better.”
Since then, Roldan has become one of the most indispensible players on the Sounders and one of the most consistent week-to-week contributors in all of MLS. Originally an attacking midfielder during his standout two-season stint at the University of Washington, the Sounders switched him to a box-to-box role, where he’s thrived, becoming one of the best possession midfielders in the league and a relentless, high-motor defender.
Watch Roldan play for 90 minutes and you’ll notice two things: When he gets the ball, he rarely loses it. And he pretty much never stops running.
He’s also earned a reputation as a versatile utility man, able to play virtually anywhere on the field based on what the team needs. He’s played right back, as a No. 10 and on the wing, tallying four goals and nine assists in 2018 when he spent more time playing higher up the field.
It’s that on-field consistency and versatility that has, in part, allowed him to assume a more vocal presence in the locker room without it feeling contrived or forced.
“I think it’s something I need to continue to work on,” Roldan said. “Obviously, with my play and trying to lead by example, showing up to every game and doing my part for the team, I think the guys see that. It’s not about forcing the issue and becoming a leader vocally, that comes with time, that comes with being captain for a few games here and there. It’s happened gradually and naturally. I think it will continue on that path, but I haven’t forced the issue and I think that’s the best part of it.”
The 2019 season has forced Roldan to contend with one of his biggest adjustments yet – one that accelerated the need for him to step up both on game days and in the locker room.
Of all the roster turnover that has taken place since he joined the club, perhaps the most significant occurred during the 2018 offseason, when legendary midfielder Ozzie Alonso departed for Minnesota United in free agency. Alonso is one of the most beloved players in Sounders history, but he was also Roldan’s mentor, a key figure in teaching him the fine points of the position and how to be a professional.
One of the beautiful aspects of Alonso’s game has always been his status as the ultimate mistake-eraser
– his uncanny ability to cover limitless ground and cut out counterattacks. On top of that, Roldan says an overlooked quality was his ability to facilitate the attack, giving him a two-way skillset that was never going to be easy to replace.
Starting alongside Gustav Svensson, Roldan said it’s been about figuring out how to work together to fill that void by playing to their own strengths. It’s been a work in progress, but for the first half of 2019, Seattle’s defensive midfield has largely remained a strength.
Ozzie has been known for his ability to track back, stop any counters, and I would say Gustav has done a fantastic job of that,” Roldan said. “But I think what Ozzie was underrated for was his ability to bring the ball from our half to the final third and really start our attacks. I think Gustav and myself have shared that responsibility, so it’s not up to one guy now. It takes two of us to really do that. Obviously, we miss his leadership but I’m happy he’s doing well and obviously we’re doing well.”
For a player who has already appeared in 145 MLS matches, it’s scary to think that there are still greater heights to be reached. But when it comes to Roldan, it’s entirely possible he hasn’t reached his ceiling. He’s played so many games, it can be easy to forget he still hasn’t reached his 25th birthday.
It’s part of why the Sounders chose to lock him into the club for the foreseeable future with a multi-year contract extension during the 2018 offseason, keeping him in the city that he considers his adopted home.
“I feel like this is home,” Roldan said. “It’s great to not only feel loved within the club but also within the fans. It’s fantastic because it gives me so much more confidence going into games knowing that I’m going to fight for them and they’re going to fight for me.
“And it’s that mutual feeling that we care about each other and we care about the success of the team and that’s all I ever ask for,” he added. “I’ve got more of it. That’s something I will always cherish and Seattle has been a major part of my career thus far and hopefully it continues to.”
You can find the full Issue 24 of Sounders Monthly here.