Cristian Roldan 150708
Joshua Weisberg

Replacing the Irreplaceable: How Sounders FC plugs in for Dempsey

At least defensively, Cristian Roldan’s directives against D.C. United were clear. Provide cover for the defensive midfielders, shield their movement as a sort of an advanced picket line and congest opposition passing lanes wherever possible.

But as for the attack? Roldan got the No. 10 treatment: just do your thing.

“Offensively, they basically gave me the liberty to do as I pleased,” Roldan said.

In a league that doesn’t feature a ton of natural central attacking midfielders with technical proclivities, that was flattering instruction. Other than being told to stay between the defensive midfielders as much as possible, Roldan was given license to roam, create and generally wreak havoc on the D.C. United back line as he saw fit. For a 20-year-old who was gearing up for his sophomore season at the University of Washington a year ago, it was an exciting proposition.

For most of the season, Roldan’s been a mound of modeling clay. Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid has largely fit Roldan into the position of need as it arises, which isn’t an uncommon plight for a rookie. He’s played on both flanks as a wide midfielder in both a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1, and he’s also dropped in as a holding midfielder with box-to-box tendencies beside both Osvaldo Alonso and Michael Azira.

But Seattle’s 1-0 win over D.C. United last week was a watershed moment for Roldan. He’s always seen himself as a creative midfielder first, so when he was stacked on top of Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda in the midfield for the first time, those were 90 minutes he won’t soon forget.

“Playing that role is very difficult because you have such little time and space,” Roldan said. “You’re basically a second striker at times. It’s a role that I think is underused in MLS. Only some teams have that true No. 10. But it’ll be good to play there hopefully once again.”

Roldan’s plus performance there in the D.C. United match wasn’t just an important moment for him. Sounders FC has been trying to make do without attacking talisman Clint Dempsey now for four matches, with mixed results. Sounders FC was shut out in its first two without Dempsey against the San Jose Earthquakes and Philadelphia Union, and a 4-1 loss to the Portland Timbers provided their first goal in league play in more than two weeks.

Each of those three matches came with Dempsey sidelined due to a three-match ban, which dumped him directly into CONCACAF Gold Cup duties. If the U.S. manages to win its group and advance to the final, Dempsey will be tied up in international duty until July 26, potentially ruling him out for the next three Sounders FC matches. As if to provide a tangible example as to what Seattle was missing, Dempsey scored twice in the Americans’ Gold Cup opener on Tuesday, a 2-1 win over Honduras.

Replacing Dempsey until he returns is no simple task. In fact, no one player in MLS has a more difficult skill set to replicate.

“I think we all defend more as a group (when Dempsey doesn’t play),” Roldan said. “We try to keep possession, but sometimes we get impatient. But when Clint is there, we don’t get as impatient and we find the ball to his feet and make runs off what he does. It’s more about being patient when he’s not on the field.”

Most players who live in the shadowed alleys between generally accepted positional roles do so primarily to hide a skill set deficiency or two. A coach scoots a technical striker back a few steps if he’s visibly uncomfortable carrying the burden of the scoring load. Or he pushes a pacey midfielder wide if he lacks the ability to control the wavelength of the game between the center backs. But Dempsey, who is comfortable literally anywhere in the attacking third, has nothing to hide. He is neither simply a creator or simply a shadow striker or simply a wide attacking midfielder. He is simultaneously all of those things, while being none of them exclusively.

So you can see why he’s such a vexing prospect for defensive midfielders and defenders alike. He’s like a wisp of smoke dancing over a flame. There’s no predicting his positioning.

Dempsey last played a 90-minute match for Sounders FC on June 13, a 3-0 win over FC Dallas. Unsurprisingly, Dempsey’s favored position was tucked underneath Obafemi Martins in a creative posture.

Dempsey didn’t fill up the stat sheet with a voluminous count of passes - he rarely does - but he picked his spots and completed 88 percent of his 33 passes. Efficient, tight, creative. All the hallmarks of a vintage Dempsey performance. Dempsey is not a prototypical facilitator in that he looks for his own shot as much as he looks to pass, but the attention he draws as he ghosts out of the box with possession tends to open gaping pockets of space in dangerous areas. And Dempsey is as adept as anyone in MLS at exploiting them.

But since Dempsey’s been out, filling that spot has been difficult. So difficult, in fact, that Schmid hasn’t even tried.

“We’re not expecting Cristian to fill Clint’s role, nor is he playing in a similar role,” Schmid said. “We’re playing a little bit differently. What we expect from Cristian in that role is to be a guy who’s a facilitator, who can find that ball in the pocket behind the forwards, but who’s also someone who’s willing to run beyond the forwards if they check back.”

Without Dempsey and Martins, Schmid’s largely favored a one-striker setup to utilize the talent at hand, the formation morphing from a nebulous 4-2-3-1 in defense to a 4-3-3 in attack. That led both Andy Rose and Marco Pappa into stints tucked underneath the striker on forays forward, more often than not with Lamar Neagle alone up top. But since Rose is more comfortable without a creative workload, and Pappa is practically the definition of a wing player, Roldan’s march upfield took center stage against D.C. United.

Against United, Roldan was clearly feeling his way into a position he hadn’t played over 90 minutes since college. There were a few unsurprising hiccups as he adjusted. But as the match advanced, Roldan gradually grew more comfortable stepping into those pockets in the attacking third and picking out overlapping runners. In addition to his typical thriftiness - he didn’t chalk up an unsuccessful pass in Sounders FC’s own half - eight of his 12 passes in Seattle’s own end came in the first half. As the match progressed, so too did Roldan’s propensity to push up and look to create.

Roldan may not play in that role consistently in Dempsey’s absence - after all, he’s one of the most versatile players on the team - but his ability there certainly gives Schmid options. He could get another crack at it this weekend, when Sounders FC travels to Illinois to face down the Chicago Fire. While Chicago is the league’s worst team in earned points per game, their defense is hardly the worst in the Eastern Conference with 24 goals surrendered in 16 matches. Even still, there should be exploitable fissures in Chicago’s defense a willing creator can exploit. Whether that’s Roldan or someone else.

Nobody can replace Dempsey, either on this roster or any other in MLS. He’s too valuable, too positionally nebulous, too productive. But through Roldan and a fleet of capable defensive midfielders helmed by Alonso and Pineda, one of the league’s best registas, they won’t have to.

“All individuals are difficult to replace,” Schmid said. “Oba’s difficult to replace, Dempsey’s difficult to replace, because the team gets used to playing with them, gets used to seeing what they’re going to do, how they’re going to react. They know where he’s going to show up on the field. They have an idea where they can get him the ball. And certainly he has the ability to hold the ball under pressure, he has the ability to create an opening because he can dribble past a defender and unbalance the opponent.”

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