DENVER — Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan has had a breakout season to remember.
The second-year midfielder out of the University of Washington logged more than 2,600 minutes during the regular season, scoring four times and adding three more assists in 33 games. Major League Soccer included him in its annual “24 Under 24” list, highlighting the league’s best players under the age of 24. He scored the game-winning goal in Seattle’s pivotal Decision Day win and has played the full 90 minutes in each of its four Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs games so far.
As he continues to learn from running mate Osvaldo Alonso, Roldan, 21, has emerged as one of MLS’ brightest young No. 6s.
Roldan has made quite the name for himself around the league — but he isn’t the only Roldan in MLS.
Cristian’s older brother, Cesar, is an assistant athletic trainer for the Colorado Rapids. Cesar is four years Cristian’s senior and joined Colorado in early March after spending three seasons as in intern for the LA Galaxy. The job was a last-minute opportunity and he moved immediately to join Rapids head athletic trainer Michael Heitkamp.
Cesar played soccer all through high school and could have played collegiately at the Division II or III levels, but he didn’t think it would take him any further than that. Instead, he put all his focus into his kinesiology studies at Cal-State Long Beach.
And now, when the Sounders take on the Rapids in the second leg of the Western Conference Championship on Sunday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City (1 p.m. PT; ESPN 770 KTTH, El Rey 1360AM), Cesar will be there on the Rapids sideline — opposite his younger brother.
“It’s kind of weird to be honest,” said Cristian. “I’ve never really been on the opposing team as him. I never really played him against him.
“It’s awesome and it’s great to think that the two of us ended up being in MLS. He’s worked his tail off to be there and he deserves it. He deserves all the credit he can get, so we’re very happy and my parents are probably the happiest.”
The Roldans grew up in Pico Rivera, Calif., a town of 60,000 people located 13 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Cristian, Cesar and their youngest brother, Alex, who just finished his junior season at Seattle University, all participated in the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), a recreational league for kids four through 19 years old. When Cesar was eight, four-year-old Cristian would tag along and kick a ball around at practice. They used to love practicing so much that they would have their bags packed and ready to go by the door even before their parents asked them to because they just wanted to play.
Cristian started training with Cesar’s team at nine years old. The players gave Cristian the nickname “Mini Me” because of his age and diminutive stature, but it didn’t stop him from excelling. He picked up little tricks of how to use his low center of gravity to his advantage and forced him to read the game faster. It didn’t take long for him to adjust.
“He would come practice,” said Cesar, “and he’d be four years younger than us and still schooling some of my teammates.”
In middle school, Cristian trained with Cesar’s high school varsity soccer team. The head coach said if Cristian could hang with the older kids then he was more than welcome.
“I didn’t know if I was good enough to play with them to be honest, but they took me in and they allowed me to practice,” said Cristian. “I was the happiest kid in middle school.”
Said Cesar: “When the coach saw, it was another person saying this kid was going to be special. Obviously during high school, he was a special part of the team and helped lead them to state championships. The rest is really history.”
The Seattle Sounders selected Cristian with the 16th pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, but it may not have happened were it not for Cesar.
After a Pac-12 Freshman of the Year campaign, Cristian declined an MLS contract through Generation adidas, which allows professional-ready college players who are not yet eligible for the draft to sign with the league. The MLS SuperDraft format only allows players who have graduated college or have signed with the league to be selected.
Following another stellar sophomore season, Cristian had a big decision to make.
“[Cristian and Cesar are] very close,” said their father, Cesar Sr. “During the draft, during all the negotiation of him signing the Generation adidas [contract], his mentor was his brother. Cesar was guiding him as far as leaving school and going pro.”
Cristian was considered by many to be a potential top-five prospect, but his falling draft stock allowed the Sounders to trade with Real Salt Lake to move up and select him. The first person Cristian hugged when MLS commissioner Don Garber called his name was his older brother.
Cristian took the podium and publicly thanked his brother as well.
“I’d like to thank my family, they’ve been super supportive about this,” Cristian said at the time. “My brother, who is here has been a big part of making the decision to leave school early.”
The move has paid off handsomely for Cristian and for the Sounders. Having played collegiately in Seattle, the Sounders had an easier time scouting Cristian and learned very quickly what Cesar has known all along.
“[Cristian’s] intangibles, his work ethic are bar none,” said Cesar. “He’s a humble kid. He will outwork anyone on the field.”
Cesar, Cristian and Alex still play small-sided games when they’re home together in Los Angeles. Cesar, though, has long been unable to keep up with his younger brother.
“No chance,” said Cesar with a laugh. “I have enough humbleness to know that I can’t take him 1-on-1, but he’ll get a big ol’ bump or a nice trip as he goes by.”
Despite being physically outmatched, Cesar still plays the role of big brother. If he can’t watch Cristian play, he either records the Sounders’ games or watches them on MLS LIVE to see how he does. Cesar will call or text Cristian to check in to see how he’s doing physically, especially if he goes down on a hard tackle.
“He knows what he has to do, and I just let him ride on that,” said Cesar. “More so I just tell him to keep his head cool and not get too frustrated during the actual game itself.”
While Cristian and Cesar have a great relationship, they’re still competitors at heart. There won’t be any love lost for the teams they represent when they compete on Sunday for a chance to play in the MLS Cup Final.
“It’s bittersweet because I want him to do well personally, I want him to do the best he can, I want him to make it through the game healthy, but I want the team I’m working for to win,” said Cesar.
Responded Cristian with a smile: “I can’t blame him for thinking that, but I hope Seattle wins.”
The real winners, though, are their parents. Their father said not even in his dreams could he have imagined having two of his sons involved in professional soccer. And whatever the outcome may be come Sunday afternoon, the Roldans will still have someone for whom to root.
“I have three boys and I have no favorites, and they all have rings from college and high school,” Cesar Sr. said. “I want one of my boys to have an MLS ring.”