Cristian Rolda celebrates vs. Portland Timbers 2017-08-28

Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan is having one of the best breakout seasons in Major League Soccer, and this is only the beginning.


On Sunday afternoon, United States men’s national team Head Coach Bruce Arena called in Roldan to the U.S.’ 26-man roster for upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. Later that evening, Roldan scored his sixth goal of the MLS season, extending his career high, and helped lead the Sounders to a 1-1 draw against the Portland Timbers.


Roldan receives a myriad of plaudits for his passing vision and attacking impetus playing a hybrid No.6/No. 8 role alongside Osvaldo Alonso in Seattle’s central midfield, but those aren’t the only reasons why the 22-year-old has fallen into favor with Arena on the international level. What indubitably excites Arena, and likely contributed to Roldan’s first U.S. cap during July’s Gold Cup, is Roldan’s defensive motor and recovery ability. Those are the same reasons why Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer loves Roldan too. He does the little things, the minute and oft-overlooked things that don’t end up in box scores, and he does them exceptionally well.



Some of Roldan’s defensive recovery skills are tactical and have been coached into him — on-field positioning, when to go forward and when to hang back, etc. — but most of it is a mixture of instinct and effort. Here are several examples during the match against the Timbers this past weekend.


In the 33rd minute, the Sounders are in possession in their own half, with Alonso on the ball to the right. Roldan has pushed even with Alonso, parallel to him around the center circle. But after Alonso uncharacteristically turns it over, Sebastian Blanco is off to the races in a 2-v-2 situation with Darren Mattocks against Chad Marshall and Roman Torres.

Roldan to the rescue: A breakdown of Cristian Roldan’s recovery ability and defensive instincts -

Roldan darts back immediately, covering for Alonso, who’s been taken out of the play, and gives support to Marshall and Torres. Roldan takes a great angle to cut off Blanco before he can reach the 18-yard box, which is massive because it doesn’t force Torres to step up. He’s allowed to sit back and keep both Blanco, the ball and Mattocks in front of him, all while Marshall acts a safety net in behind.



Roldan follows Blanco’s run all the way toward the end line without allowing him space to receive a through ball from Mattocks, who has to pull the ball out, giving right fullback Kelvin Leerdam time to fully get back in position as well. By the time Mattocks has an opportunity to do something, the chance is gone.


Here are two more late-game examples, each in the final 10 minutes. The first comes in the 83rd minute. The Sounders have thrown many numbers forward as they push for a winner, and after Portland clears the ball, it looks to counter.


Playmaker Diego Valeri gets the ball 30 yards from his own net with no one around him, but Roldan closes him down so quickly, Valeri is forced to play a quick outlet pass wide to an open Diego Chara. Roldan leaves Valeri instantly and bolts for Chara, who already has a full head of steam, and forces Chara to play nothing but a one-timed pass back to Valeri. This gives Leerdam time to recover onto Valeri while Roldan keeps a full sprint and actually cuts off Chara’s run, gets goalside and paces him.



The play doesn’t stop there, though. Valeri cleverly plays a through ball over the top to forward Jeremy Ebobisse, who is 1-on-1 against Marshall. Roldan sees Nouhou providing cover in the center of the field and Leerdam falling back, so Roldan leaves Chara, who runs into Nouhou’s path, and works to help Marshall.

Roldan to the rescue: A breakdown of Cristian Roldan’s recovery ability and defensive instincts -

Roldan’s presence over Marshall’s left shoulder forces Ebobisse into only one option, which is further toward the end line as opposed to cutting across goal, and Ebobisse delivers a smart but ultimately ineffective cross that a recovering Alonso clears out of danger.



Three minutes later, the Sounders find themselves in another precarious situation. Roldan (below, bottom center) has just crossed in a ball that was caught by Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. He rolls the ball quickly to Blanco, who has yards and yards of space.

Roldan to the rescue: A breakdown of Cristian Roldan’s recovery ability and defensive instincts -

Roldan sprints 50 yards back toward his own goal, tracks Blanco’s long switch to Valeri on the left side and in one motion heads a looping pass to Torres to quell a potential Portland break before it happens.



To emphasize, the Sounders were in the 86th minute of a hotly contested rivalry match and were playing their third game in week. Roldan played all 90 minutes in each of them, and his energy did not waver.


Roldan’s ability to get on the scoresheet is duly noted; his six goals and three assists speak for themselves. But that’s not something for which Schmetzer consistently relies on Roldan. It’s not what Arena expects either. The U.S. has Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe to carry the offensive midfield burden. Arena will also likely call upon seasoned veterans Michael Bradley and Dax McCarty to hold down the center of the park defensively, so this camp will be a wonderful learning experience for Roldan.


But if Roldan can continue to produce at this high a level and prove his worth as a ball-hawking, counter-killing defensive center midfielder, then expect him to be a national team mainstay for this year and many, many years to come.

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