Overlooked no more: Roldan claims his place in Seattle's, USMNT's futures

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Cristian Roldan was overlooked in high school, college and even when entering MLS. Now, he's one of Seattle's -- and the USMNT's -- rising stars, Scott French writes.

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TORONTO -- Underestimate Cristian Roldan at your own peril. That's happened again and again with the Seattle Sounders' rising midfielder, who has this knack of showing up his doubters.

He was spurned out of high school, when UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo ignored his family's constant phone calls and the highlights video meant to grab his attention, and instead ended up at Washington, leading the Huskies to a Pacific 12 Conference championship as a freshman and winning All-America honors as a sophomore.

He was bypassed 15 times in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft -- three times by Toronto FC -- before the Sounders traded up to nab him with the 16th selection, a total steal that's already paying off handsomely.

And he's emerged this year, largely under the radar, as a force in central midfield for the Sounders who figures to play a prominent role as they seek their first league championship in Saturday’s MLS Cup final against Toronto FC.

Roldan, 21, already looks like one of MLS' better holding midfielders, and his partnership with Osvaldo Alonso is a prime but underrated reason, among many, that Seattle stormed from ninth place in the West into the postseason and past the league's top two sides, FC Dallas and Colorado, in the postseason. And it may have been enough to earn him a U.S. men’s national team call-up in the near future.

He's a classic two-way central midfielder, and if the Sounders figured he'd develop into a consistent contributor on the field, they might not have expected it to happen so quickly. He spent last year playing out of position mostly, on the flanks, when he did see action, while Mexican midfielder Gonzalo Pineda schooled him in the finer points of the game.

The lessons have taken hold, and Roldan's game is significantly stronger and more nuanced than it was when this season began. Where he was tentative, he now is fearless.

“I love talking about Cristian, because he's such a great kid,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “I think it's a two-way street between [Alonso] and he. ... I think Ozzie's the beneficiary of some of Cristian's youthfulness, his tactics, his smarts, where he puts himself on the field.

“The partnership there is really terrific.”

Seattle will need its alliance to contend with TFC's Sebastian Giovinco. Shut him down, or at least slow him considerably, and the Cup is the Sounders' to lose. And Roldan doesn't lose very often, as former Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who parted with the team on July 26, knows.

“He competes. That's No. 1 [of the things I like about him],” said Sigi Schmid, who first saw Roldan across town at Washington and brought him in to train with the Sounders following his freshman campaign. “He's got a great attitude, No. 2. Technically, he's faster than people realize, so athletically he's good. He jumps really well. His passing is pretty good -- that's the [part of his game that's grown most] from last year to this year.

“And he's a big sponge. He just wants to learn everyday.”

The elements of Roldan’s game

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Roldan needed time to develop his defensive game, something to which he paid little attention during his youth career and at UW, and the acceleration in his growth this season has been downright stunning. It bodes well for his future, in MLS and, he hopes, with the U.S. national team.

He does so many things for the Sounders that don't get noticed and plenty that does. He's neither big (5-foot-8, 165 pounds) nor strong nor fast, nor particularly flashy, but he has ample on-field intelligence, emotional maturity beyond his years and fearsome drive. He has terrific instincts, especially going forward, and has developed into a fine defender whose timing on tackles and ability to plug gaps has enabled Alonso, Seattle's captain, to add to his arsenal.

Seattle has long desired more from Alonso going forward, and Roldan's presence has made that possible. Roldan can be deadly in the attack, as we've seen on several occasions this year, scoring four goals and setting up three more.

Roldan has been on the path since around the time he began kindergarten. His family visited relatives in El Salvador when he was 5, and he was asked to be a ball boy when he went to watch a cousin, Jose Granadino, play for FAS, one of the country's top clubs. During one of the matches, he began juggling the ball, impressively, and the crowd roared at the sight. He was smitten.

He tagged along to practice with his brother Cesar's club team, which was four years older than he -- his brother reported that Cristian was “schooling some of my teammates” -- and when he was 9, he beat out more than 100 other kids to star in an adidas commercial, in which he fashioned a ball out of plastic bags and juggled it with aplomb.

“I didn't want to go [to the audition],” Roldan told FourFourTwo. “I was crying. ... My dad sort of forced me.”

Roldan went on to become a SoCal schoolboy legend, winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year honor -- presented to him when Alexi Lalas burst into Roldan’s marine biology class. He followed in the footsteps of Salvadoran national-teamer Waldir Guerra, Hall-of-Famers Eric Wynalda and Joe-Max Moore, and rising Galaxy phenom Raul Mendiola before him.

Not that that mattered. He'd never played for a top-level club -- the Galaxy's and Chivas USA's academies were interested in him, but playing for El Rancho, which he couldn't have done had he joined, meant too much to let pass -- and had received just one scholarship offer, from Cal State Bakersfield, before his final prep season was done.

His coach at El Rancho, Dominic Picon, had played at Notre Dame, but he couldn't get the Irish to take a look. And Roldan, like so many young SoCal stars, dreamed of playing for UCLA, but Salcedo -- a former UCLA/Galaxy midfielder -- wasn't interested.

Washington coach Jamie Clark happened to see Roldan playing for Union Independiente, a small club from nearby Norwalk. After 10 minutes, he offered Roldan a partial scholarship. Roldan was the Huskies' final selection in that recruiting class.

The slights never bothered him -- “it just adds fuel to the fire” -- and everything has played out perfectly, even if it messed with his plans.

“I've been told I'm the luckiest guy alive, for that reason,” he said. “For some reason everything just went my way. It wasn't the most orthodox way, but at the end of the day, I'm happy where I'm at, and things are going spectacular for me.”

Honing his technical skill...for club, and country?

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Roldan signed a Generation adidas contract with MLS after his sophomore season, and he was generally considered a top-five prospect in the 2015 SuperDraft. The Sounders didn't have a pick until the second round: No. 27 overall.

But most other MLS clubs weren't convinced that Roldan had a future. He wasn't going to be a No. 10 at this level, there wasn't enough to his body of work to suggest he could do something else, and he spiraled down the list as the first round proceeded. The Sounders saw their chance and made a deal with Real Salt Lake to move up to 16th, where they nabbed Roldan.

They liked him immensely -- he's humble and has a terrific work ethic -- but needed to sharpen his game.

“One of the things we were always hounding him about was his overall technical ability,” Schmetzer said. “Just making sure he was a little cleaner with his first touch to move into space to really drive at opponents. Or his passing -- did he really have those real fine details? And the other side of it was just his vision and his thinking the game.

“We were encouraged by whenever we gave him instruction, we could actually see him try to implement it, so we knew that he was taking the information and actually applying it. Those were a couple of areas we were real happy about with his development.”

Said Schmid: “He was a rookie last year. That was the big difference. It takes you awhile to learn it.”

That's where Pineda stepped in. The veteran defensive midfielder, who had played for El Tri at the 2006 World Cup and for several Liga MX powers, made Roldan his project.

“He loves to see people get better and see people just strive,” Roldan said. “He's always wanted to be a coach, and he really took me under his wing and was able to give me advice and help me every way possible.”

Roldan calls Pineda “papa.” Pineda calls Roldan “son.”

Alonso and Pineda were the Sounders' holding midfielders last year, so Roldan saw a lot of time on the flank. That's not his best spot, but he did well, and there was far more subtlety to his game by the time the season was over.

“That's just testament to his talent, being able to get on the field,” Schmid said. “Always knew his best position was inside. Down the line -- and this is way down the line, maybe, because Ossie's got a lot of good years in front of him -- he can probably [step in for Alonso]. That's probably the job that he's best at, but he also has enough goalscoring in him that he can be that in-between midfielder, that No. 8, as they call it now.”

He's become expert at switching play, has developed into a savvy passer. He rarely puts the ball in the wrong place while completing nearly 50 passes per game, almost 85 percent of his attempts. And he moves extremely well, especially when penetrating. He has a natural sense of things that has enabled his quick, steady growth, and this year, especially since Schmetzer took charge, found his best spot, as the No. 8 to Alonso's No. 6.

It's made a difference. When he and Alonso start next to each other -- they were partners four times in the first two months of the season and in 13 of 19 games under Schmetzer -- Seattle is 12-3-2.

When Roldan starts anywhere -- he's also played on the right wing -- the Sounders are 17-10-6. When he doesn't start, they're 1-6-2, all competitions.

How good can he be?

“I feel,” Schmid said, “he has the potential to play for the national team.”

A January call-up? Perhaps. Bruce Arena, right after succeeding Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. boss, mentioned Roldan in a segment during Fox Sports 1's coverage of the conference finals, noting he “has played well.”

Roldan could play for Guatemala (his father's homeland) or El Salvador (his mother's birthplace) but would prefer to play for the U.S.

“First I have to get called in and see how things go,” he said. “For me, it would be awesome to represent the Red, White and Blue. It would be an honor.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.