The Seattle Sounders were led by a trio of superstars in their convincing 3-1 win over LAFC on Tuesday night in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, but it was the unsung and professional performance from Alex Roldan that was arguably just as important.
Roldan, 24, made his MLS postseason debut with an unenviable task. He was asked to fill in for veteran stalwart Kelvin Leerdam, who was reportedly out with a hamstring injury, and at times go toe-to-toe with LAFC winger and reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela. The moment was never too large for Roldan.
“Tonight was a big game for the club,” said Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, “and [Roldan] performed over and above my expectations.”
Roldan’s journey to playoff starter at right fullback is a far cry from 12 months ago when his 2020 option was declined following the Sounders’ 2019 MLS Cup win. He made 28 appearances over two seasons as a reserve midfielder, but his path to breaking into a team that includes some of MLS’ best in Nicolás Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson and his brother, Cristian, seemed unlikely.
Instead, he worked his way back to the club as a right back in the offseason and earning his spot with a dogged determination that impressed the Seattle coaching and technical staff.
“Switching positions gave me the opportunity to kind of get a second look at what I have to offer as a player,” Roldan told The Seattle Times recently. “This year, I feel that I’ve carried that out and expanded on that…Having the ability to adapt and show I can learn the position quickly [helped].”
Added Roldan in June: “[Right back] suits me well, I’m a smart player. I’m not the most athletic, but I can definitely make up for all the athleticism by playing the game smarter…With a good coach like [Djimi Traore], I have good coaching, so I’m just trying to get into good habits and hopefully get better at it.”
Not only did Roldan prove he belonged on the pitch on Tuesday, he played by all accounts the best match of his young MLS career when the Sounders needed it the most. He was defensively stout, leading Seattle with five tackles and four interceptions. He also had nine recoveries, a clearance and a block. Offensively, he was just as impressive. He had an incredible four key passes from his outside fullback position, while completing 78 percent of his passes and was third on the team in total touches with 84.
“Alex is a tremendous young player,” said Schmetzer. “He lives in the shadow a little bit of his brother, and tonight I don’t think you would say that. Alex is a very, very good, capable right back in MLS.”
Depending on Leerdam’s status for the Sounders’ Western Conference Semifinals match with FC Dallas on Tuesday, Dec. 1, (6:30 p.m. PT; FS1), Roldan may very well get the nod at right back again. Schmetzer & Co. will be expecting the same high-quality performance that they saw against LAFC.
“He works so hard, and fans may not get to appreciate what he does for the team, but on the field and in practice each and every day, he creates competition,” said Cristian of Alex when his brother re-signed in February. “He’s an MLS-caliber player, and he showed it at a different position. That may surprise other people, but [Alex is versatile], and he’s willing to sacrifice for the team.”