SEATTLE — It is Sept. 20, 2013, and it is pouring during the University of Washington men’s soccer team’s match vs. Florida Gulf Coast.
The Huskies have just made it 2-0 minutes before halftime when freshman Cristian Roldan intercepts the ball at midfield. An attacking midfielder by trade, he has started on the wing his first few collegiate games to ease his transition and allow for some freedom with the ball without being saddled with too many responsibilities defensively. His assignment is simple: Run at defenders, make them backpedal, keep them honest.
Roldan dances forward gracefully with a full head of steam the way a ballet dancer might sprint across a stage. He skates past four or five defenders, each touch subtle and effective as he heads toward goal. He slots a shot to the opposite corner from the right side of the box, slides in celebration on the wet field and clenches his fists before he’s swallowed up by his teammates.
The goal was Roldan’s first of his college career, but it wasn’t supposed to happen in Seattle. He went to high school in Pico Rivera, Calif., just 25 miles from Westwood, home of perennial college powerhouse UCLA. He wanted to be a Bruin, to stay close to home and play at the highest level of Division I, so much so that he and his parents emailed Jorge Salcedo every week trying to get the UCLA head coach’s attention.
One by one in rhythmic procession, they littered Salcedo’s inbox, collecting dust with others that too went unanswered. Each email with the same basic message: Let me play for you. Let me help you win.
Nothing happened. Roldan exploded for 54 goals and 31 assists in his senior season en route to being named the 2013 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year, but he was a late name on national recruiting boards because he didn’t play for a big club in the Los Angeles area. He didn’t play for the LA Galaxy or Chivas USA Academy teams. The only college scholarship offer he received came from Cal-State Bakersfield.
Until Washington head coach Jamie Clark caught a glimpse of him.
“Jamie saw me play for 10 minutes and took a chance on me,” Roldan said. “That’s all I wanted.”
Roldan was Washington’s last roster add to its 2013 recruiting class, but Clark realized quickly, watching as Roldan celebrated with his teammates after opening his collegiate account, just how important a role he would have.
“This was a guy who was ready by game five to start running our team,” Clark said.
Roldan earned National Freshman of the Year honors in 2013 for the Huskies before being named a Third-Team All-American his sophomore season. He left school after just two years on campus with hopes of latching on with an MLS team, but he did not perform well at the MLS Combine and was somewhat unknown outside of the Pacific Northwest.
His quantifiable stats didn’t reflect his caliber or quality. His stock slipped on the day of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, and one by one, teams took a pass.
The Seattle Sounders, however, had profiled Roldan highly in their talent evaluations and did not expect Roldan to still be available for their selection at No. 16. They’d seen Roldan play for the Huskies and knew what he could bring to the club.
“The one thing I said to every MLS team I talked to before the MLS draft, but clearly they did not listen because pretty much every team passed on him, was that he was the safest pick in the draft that year,” Clark said. “I don’t know what his absolute upper ceiling is, whether he’ll play for a national team or not, but he’ll play week in and week out for an MLS team sooner rather than later.”
So, like Clark did years before, the Sounders took a chance on Roldan.
“We had good evaluations of him, and it wasn’t just one good evaluation, it was multiple good evaluations and they were really impressed with his character and work ethic,” said Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey. “And I think you see that now that he’s a pro.”
Roldan has bullish confidence without the slightest trace of an ego, and he trains like someone who still has so much more to prove. Sounders practice begins at 10:30 a.m. each day, and each day Roldan is out early using the extra time to get better. He gets more touches on the ball, works on making his passes crisper, his technique sharper. His maturity belies his age and reflects his upbringing.
“[My family] came from nothing,” Roldan said of his Guatemalan father and El Salvadoran mother. “They’ve made a pretty good life out here in the United States. I’m very fortunate to have the support and family that I have. I’m never going to take anything for granted. Anytime I’m out here, or even in normal life, I’m always going to have a smile on my face because you never know when it’s going to go away. That mindset, that positive vibe that I get from my family is definitely what helps.”
That outlook has led Roldan to three goals and three assists in 27 matches this season and a spot on Major League Soccer’s “24 Under 24” list, highlighting the best 24 players under 24 years old. He has developed from an occasional starter in 2015 to a bona fide defensive central midfielder alongside Sounders veteran Osvaldo Alonso.
Roldan benefits from the attention Alonso creates and learns by watching him operate, but the inverse, perhaps puzzlingly to many people, is also true.
“Ozzie is a great player, but Ozzie needs help sometimes,” said Sounders interim head coach Brian Schmetzer. “Nobody can tell me that they would even utter these words, ‘Oh, Cristian Roldan is making Ozzie better.’ They’d say, ‘You’re nuts, Ozzie is making Cristian better.’ But it’s actually those two in combination are a really effective pair.
“I love talking about those little things and hopefully people catch on and see all the small things Cristian does,” Schmetzer continued. “He’s got a really good skill set to have a long career. But it’s a skill set in some of the smaller aspects of our game that are vital for teams to win and they’re just not as noticeable.”
Gonzalo Pineda noticed. The former Sounders midfielder and one of the most decorated Mexican internationals of all time retired after last season, but not before trying to pass the torch to Roldan, a self-admitted shy kid who had a difficult time coming out of his shell when he first joined the Sounders.
“When I got to the team, I was very quiet,” Roldan said. “I didn’t say much. I kind of just went about my day.”
Pineda saw Roldan’s potential and was determined to bring it out. He would pull Roldan aside and made him think about why he did things, when he did things, how he was supposed to do things. He taught him those little nuances that are the nucleus of a great player, and the little things people easily overlook or take for granted. He taught Roldan to look over his shoulder more, to hone in on his passing, to move smarter on the pitch.
“I remember telling Cristian, ‘You know who’s coaching you, don’t you? It’s Pineda, one of the best Mexican players of all time,’” Schmetzer said. “He goes, ‘I know, I know.’ His eyes bugged out when Gonzo started to talk to him. Gonzo was a big, big reason why Cristian is successful.”
That extra training opened the door for Roldan to make a huge leap from his rookie to sophomore seasons. The game is slowing down for him, his role and responsibilities are larger and he’s continuing to get better at the little things.
“His positioning on the field [is right] when somebody needs a pass to get out of a jam and he’s there and then he makes that simple five-yard pass,” Schmetzer said. “Everyone says, ‘What’s the big deal about that?’ Well the big deal is that he’s actually in the right spot at the right time.”
Roldan’s role has changed from Year 1, and so have his assignments. Now that he’s tucked in the center of the park behind the talented offensive likes of Nicolas Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey, he’s turned his focus to the defensive end. He loves getting into tackles and winning defensive battles. He admitted it’s an odd thing for a former attacker to like, but he finds it satisfying winning his individual duels.
He also wants to learn more about his new role with the club and how to improve, something that has not gone unnoticed by the club’s technical staff.
“He’s not so consumed with his hubris that it prevents him from processing information,” said Lagerwey. “Once you’re humble enough to admit that you can get better, and you’re smart enough to listen, then that learning process can really accelerate itself. You combine that with his hard work and his work rate and I think you’re seeing the fruits of his labors.”
Roldan is a big fan of Roger Levesque - not Levesque as the beloved former Sounder, but Levesque as the Seattle Sounders director of community outreach, the position he’s held since November 2014. Roldan loves working with and giving back to the community. He had mentors growing up and knows how valuable then can be in youth development, so he’s dedicated to helping any way possible.
“I would love to be doing something like Roger and visit Seattle Children’s [Hospital],” Roldan said, “having fun and enjoying my time with these kids who are a little underprivileged.”
There is no publicity stunt. Roldan is energetic, passionate and happy these days, and things are only getting better. When younger guys like Jordan Morris and Tyler Miller joined the team, he felt more at home and relaxed, and his play reflected that.
His friendship with Morris especially has led to more confidence. They’re roommates on the road and three times a week Roldan goes over to Morris’ parents’ house on Mercer Island, where Morris’ mother cooks them dinner. They’re anchoring each other and mutually reaping the benefits.
“Jordan has his own specific set of pressures, Cristian has his own set of pressures,” Schmetzer said. “The thing that bonds them is that they’re such great young men and they help each other in times of duress. Credit each one of them for the other one’s rise in play and attitude.”
And while he was largely overlooked by the U.S. at the youth level, Roldan could have international duty at some point in the future. He’s been courted by the coaching staffs from Guatemala and El Salvador and, if he keeps developing at his current pace, a call from the United States may not be too far away. He has dreams and aspirations of playing at a World Cup, but for now he’s content playing in Seattle, solidifying his spot and contributing in any way he can.
Before signing with Washington three years ago, Roldan came to Seattle on an official visit. Clark picked him up from the airport and the first thing he did was bring Roldan to Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila.
“He said, ‘This is where the Sounders train,’” Roldan said. “Jamie brought me here and said hopefully we can bring you out to a couple trainings and you can train with them. That was an awesome feeling.”
A feeling brought about by some ignored emails months before that sent him by chance to the Pacific Northwest and got him in front of the eyes of Sounders scouts and executives. A feeling he now gets to experience each and every day, living out an opportunity he never imagined would come.
“We’re so lucky to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves,” Roldan said. “I want to be the best professional and best person I can be.”