One could reasonably argue, without fear of derision, that Seattle Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer would feel comfortable playing Cristian Roldan anywhere on the field.
Trying to name every field position Roldan has played in the last two years is almost an exercise in futility. He thrived last year in his normal defensive midfield/box-to-box hybrid role, but also had stints at the No. 10, on both wings and at fullback. The only positions he hasn’t played yet are center back, forward and goalkeeper, although it’s not farfetched to imagine he’d put in a yeoman’s effort in net a la Mike Magee if the scenario ever arose.
He can score. In high school, Roldan tallied over 50 times his senior year en route to winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year. He can defend. He led Major League Soccer in tackles and duels won in 2017. He can do everything in between. There are few central midfielders in MLS, especially at just 22 years old, who have the type of engine, soccer IQ and wherewithal to put in a complete shift wherever he is needed.
In the Sounders’ 3-1 win over Minnesota United on Sunday, Roldan started as an attacking midfielder and recorded two assists in the first 25 minutes. Clint Dempsey checked in in the second half and took over at the No. 10, pushing Roldan out to the left wing. When Magnus Wolff Eikrem entered in the 75th minute for Osvaldo Alonso, Eikrem took over on the left wing and pushed Roldan to defensive midfielder alongside Gustav Svensson. When Jordy Delem entered for Will Bruin in the 92nd minute, Dempsey moved to forward and Roldan went back to attacking midfield, coming full circle as the game came to a close.
Let’s take a look at Roldan’s touches:
The ground he covers over the course of a match is remarkable and is impossible to track down. Of his 64 touches, nine came in the Loons’ 18-yard-box. His average position was even higher than hold-up forward Bruin.
Part of what makes Roldan so good and smart enough to play multiple positions with ease is his high-level spatial awareness. He is so skilled at inherently reading the game around him to know where to be at all times to put himself, and his teammates, in optimal positions to succeed.
Let’s look at his first assist, a one-timed layoff pass to Svensson. Rather than playing directly in the center of the pitch, he drifted toward the ball on the left side where Alonso was in possession. Roldan checked back, anticipated he would draw defenders and knew Svensson would be sitting in the space he had originally vacated. Roldan opened a shooting lane for Svensson, who did the rest with his highlight-reel golazo.
Finally, let’s take a look at Roldan’s second assist, this time to Bruin. Nicolás Lodeiro, who himself had drifted to the middle of the field, is in the ascendancy. Rather than crowd the path where Lodeiro had taken over, Roldan — he was still operating as a No. 10 at this point — had drifted out far to the left and completely unbalanced Minnesota’s defense, which had not adjusted to the shift.
As a result, right back Carter Manley wrongly took a step or two inside to cut off Lodeiro, who was not yet a threat, and left Roldan free on the wing. Lodeiro noticed this and punished Minnesota, delivering a brilliant through ball to Roldan. All it took was one run and an uncontested cross and Bruin was there double to the advantage.
Even Schmetzer is not entirely sure what Roldan’s absolute best position is. He’s debated whether or not Roldan is better as a No. 6 or a No. 8, something the United States national team coaching staff is continuing to determine as well.
But at the end of the day, it matters less where Roldan is on the pitch. It just matters that he’s out there.