Heading into the 2016 MLS season, Cristian Roldan was a young role player trying to find his footing in Seattle Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid’s midfield. Roldan played a little more than 1,000 minutes in his rookie season and spent the first half of 2016 competing for a starting job, but found it difficult to make an impact.
When Schmid was let go that summer and assistant Brian Schmetzer took over as interim manager, Schmetzer changed the team’s formation to a 4-2-3-1. He dropped Roldan back a line to pair with club legend Ozzie Alonso in defensive midfield in a move that has paid massive dividends for club and player.
Roldan started the final 13 matches of the season and all six postseason games to drag the Sounders from the basement of the Western Conference to their first MLS Cup title. He’s since transformed from promising local talent into one of this country’s best up-and-coming midfielders, and learning from Alonso played no small part.
“He was such a big player for me personally,” Roldan said of Alonso in May. “[I absorbed] Ozzie’s grit No. 1. Not backing down and putting your body on the line for the team. No. 2, what people don’t realize is how good he is on the ball. His ability to dribble out of pressure is tremendous. I still watch him and try and use that to my advantage and implement that into my game.”
Roldan has started 109 matches of the last 115 since Brian Schmetzer took over. Of those 109 games, he’s only been subbed off twice. The only six matches he’s missed were for international duty with the United States, a proud reward for how much he’s grown in the last few seasons.
Make no mistake: While Nicolás Lodeiro owns the attacking third, the Sounders midfield now firmly belongs to Roldan. His tireless effort and dogged determination set the tone for the entire team. With Alonso in Minnesota, Roldan, despite being just 24, is one of the club’s veterans and will play an integral role on Sunday when Seattle hosts Toronto FC in MLS Cup (12 p.m. PT; ABC, Univision, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM).
“There’s mutual respect between the two clubs, getting into the final three times in the last four years,” said Roldan earlier this week. “I don’t think there’s a huge hatred. It’s more respect.”
One of Roldan and current defensive midfield partner Gustav Svensson’s biggest challenges on Sunday will be shutting down Toronto playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, a 2019 acquisition who stormed onto the MLS scene to the tune of 12 goals and 12 assists en route to an MLS Best XI honor. With forward Jozy Altidore recently sidelined by injury, TFC Head Coach Greg Vanney has been operating Pozuelo as a False 9, starting him at forward but with Pozuelo dropping deeper into midfield to find the match.
In 2016 and ’17, Roldan followed Alonso’s lead in keeping former TFC star Sebastian Giovinco off the scoresheet. This time around, Roldan will need another massive two-way performance like he had in this year’s Western Conference Championship against an LAFC side that featured one of the most potent offenses in league history.
If Roldan is able to do that, then the Sounders may very well capture MLS Cup in front of a raucous and sold-out CenturyLink Field.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Roldan said of hosting the title match for the first time. “Playing in front of our fans is going to be extra special, and hopefully we can raise a trophy in front of them.”