When the Seattle Sounders selected Alex Roldan with the 22nd pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, few people, if any, could have predicted where he’d end up three years later.
The Sounders had plenty of information on Roldan. He was an attacking central midfielder at nearby Seattle University and was the younger brother of Sounders midfielder Cristian. He scored 18 goals and added 17 assists in his four collegiate seasons, but his MLS stock was more or less a mixed bag.
Through his first two seasons with the Sounders, he struggled to find game time in a crowded veteran midfield that featured the likes of Nicolás Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson and his brother. He made 28 total appearances and only recorded about 1,100 total minutes during the 2018 and ’19 MLS seasons. At the end of 2019, the Sounders declined his option.
“MLS is not easy,” said Roldan. “It’s a tough league to play in, and it’s a tough league to break into. Coming into the league, you try to set yourself with expectations, you try to set yourself with a career that could potentially grow. For some players, it doesn’t work out.”
Roldan refused to quit, though. He and Cristian trained hard that offseason, and Alex earned an opportunity to compete for another spot on the Sounders roster — at right fullback. Incumbent Kelvin Leerdam was the penciled-in starter, but Seattle had no nominal backup. Alex showed up to preseason determined to prove his worth, and he signed a new contract ahead of the 2020 MLS season.
“Fans may not get to appreciate what he does for the team, but on the field, in practice each and every day, he creates competition,” said Cristian in February 2020 when Alex rejoined the club. “I always felt that he would be back here at some point…he’s an MLS-caliber player, and he showed it at a different position. That’s what may surprise other people. This guy is versatile and he’s willing to sacrifice for the team.”
Alex did far more than just serve a practice-squad role last season. He appeared in 22 matches in all competitions, including starting all four postseason contests in the Sounders’ run to another MLS Cup appearance.
“Being persistent and committing to your capabilities are a huge part of it,” said Roldan. “In my four years, I’ve had to switch a position in order to tap into some potential that maybe coaches didn’t see before. I’m just trying to build on it each year, especially now that I’m playing more minutes. It’s crucial that I continue to show out every game and prove myself each and every game.”
Roldan has reached new heights in 2021, starring in yet another position as a wingback in Head Coach Brian Schmetzer’s new 3-5-2 formation. The move has essentially accentuated the best parts of Roldan’s game — his passing and his motor to get up and down the pitch — while offering additional defensive balance with the help of three center backs behind him. He’s played every minute of every match through the first eight games of the season and has two assists. He’s also third in MLS in completed crosses into the 18-yard box with eight.
“He’s one of the best crossers, if not the best crosser, on our team and one of the best crossers in the league,” said midfielder Kelyn Rowe. “He can put in a very good ball. He times his runs very well, he gets up and down the field. It’s a great role for him and Brad Smith because they have the cover behind them…His balls into the box have created so much, and he’s also a very good passer.”
Added Alex: “One thing that has really resonated with this formation is that our wingbacks are putting up service into the box, and not just that, we’re actually crashing the box too and looking for opportunities to score.
“It’s a lot of work,” he continued. “If you don’t have the right players to do it, the formation doesn’t succeed. That’s one of the reasons why the coaching staff decided to make the switch. Personnel-wise, we lost Jordan [Morris], who’s very explosive on the wings, and just seeing the people we have now in the outside positions, me and Brad putting good service in, it fit perfectly.”