Just a few short years ago, the majority of MLS teams decided that Cristian Roldan wasn’t good enough to be selected in the first round, due to a poor showing at the college combine. Today, the Sounders faithful are thanking those teams every time Roldan steps onto the field.
After a relatively calm rookie season in 2015, where Roldan had 22 appearances, with 11 starts, but was played out on the wings most of the time, he has taken full advantage of his opportunities and become a mainstay of the club alongside Ozzie Alonso in the spine of the team.
Just for the sake of numbers, let’s look at what Roldan’s 2016 and 2017 seasons have looked like:
In 2016, Roldan played in 33 of 34 games, and started in 28 of them. That’s impressive for a second year player. But what’s more impressive is that of the 28 games started, he was only subbed off early 4 times. That means that no matter the tactical situation, the coach relies on him to remain steady on the field.
In 2017 so far, Roldan has yet to miss out or start on the bench for any of the Sounders matches. He’s quickly becoming the new “iron man” of this team.
So why is he becoming so valuable so fast? Three main things:
One, Roldan has an uncanny ability to learn the technical details about the game. Evident by several of his teammates and coaches constantly referring to him as a “sponge” of information. In addition, if you’ve watched him for any length of time now, you can see that his on-field decision making is growing in leaps and bounds. Early on, I remember seeing him play and thinking about how many errant passes he was making, or times where he dribbled right into traffic. There has been a clear improvement in both, and it can be further attributed to the following people.
Alonso – Roldan has very clearly been able to start imitating Alonso’s style of play on the field. While Roldan does it a bit different in that he stays on his feet most of the time, it’s very evident that the hard-nosed style of Alonso has rubbed off. Every game there are examples of Roldan simply brushing off an opposing player, or masterfully getting his body in between the ball and the player. The other attribute that Roldan has gained from his time around Alonso is his ability to let the ball do the work, and use his head to fake the defender and make more room for himself. Both of these players are great at this and it helps out immensely when working with a possession-style offense driven by passing out of the back. The more that these two can get on the ball and spread it around, the better the team looks.
Gonzalo Pineda – Probably the most underrated signing the Sounders have made, Pineda wasn’t much to watch on the field due to reaching the end of his career, but it’s abundantly clear that he has a fantastic vision for the game and the field. He is obviously very good at passing along that vision to the team. Pineda had a nose for the types of passes that are typically reserved for the Lodeiro’s or Giovinco’s of the world. Obviously Pineda didn’t have the legs to do it often, but there were always glimpses of it.
For me, the field of vision for great passing is what Roldan has picked up from Pineda. In his first year, there were a lot more errant passes, and indecision on the ball. It seems as though Pineda has found a way to channel something more from Roldan here. According to WhoScored.com, in 14 appearances this year so far, Roldan has about 350 more passes than he did in all 25 appearances from 2015. In addition, his passing accuracy has increased each year, from 79.8% in 2015 to 84.8% so far in 2017. That’s a pretty large improvement, especially with the increased amount of passes. Pineda is to thank for taking Roldan under his wing and helping teach him the vision that we’re all seeing now.
So thank you to the rest of MLS that slept on Roldan. I, for one, am enjoying watching him become a leader, even when the results are hit or miss for the team this year. It will be a pleasure to see him get his inevitable first call-up to the USMNT this summer for the Gold Cup, and anyone that doubts it will happen clearly hasn’t been watching the maturation and rise of Cristian Roldan.