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Cristian Roldan belongs in the middle

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A strong rookie season in 2015 was partially hidden by poor role selection.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Chance creation in soccer is driven by both skill in distribution and player role (e.g. a central defender should be expected to generate a scoring chance in relatively few circumstances on the field), so the list of Sounders leaders in that category should come as little surprise.

Player OP Key Passes per 90'
Pappa 1.99
Ivanschitz 1.40
Dempsey 1,39
Friberg 1.13
Roldan 1.10
Barrett 1.10
Valdez 1.06
Martins 1.04
Rose 0.77
Mears 0.72

The table shows key passes from open play for Sounders with at least 500 minutes of playing time in the 2015 regular season. Marco Pappa, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Clint Dempsey were Seattle's primary creators on the season. Erik Friberg, Nelson Valdez, and Obafemi Martins were the other key attackers featuring in the starting 11. Chad Barrett regularly came into games as an offensive substitute with the team chasing a result.

Perhaps the only surprise in the list is Cristian Roldan at No. 5... with a ranking skewed in a similar manner to Barrett's. As a substitute, Roldan was typically brought into games to shore up defensive play with fresh legs in midfield. In 11 starts, he generated ~1.32 key passes per 90', which would place him in 4th on the team, narrowly behind Dempsey. Unfortunately, this feature of a strong debut season was easy to miss, mired away in the dire days of summer. Nine of Roldan's starts came in an 11-game stretch from the end of May (starting with two wins at home against Colorado and NYRB) through late July (the home win against D.C., plus six losses). His time as a starter was also split between at least four distinct roles:

RoldanMid1fix

The data points show Roldan's use in each of his 11 starts. The "MLS average" values marked on the plot represent a dataset of starting midfielders from the start of the season to the beginning of May. Positionally, Roldan lined up as a forward (right wing) in a 4-3-3 twice, twice as a central midfielder in a nominal 4-3-2-1 (once as a CAM and once as a CDM), and played as a right-sided midfielder seven times in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2). The positions poorly reflect his changing role: his last start came as a "forward" in an absurdly defensive game against Montreal on the road, exhibiting a pass share of 4.63% and a share of team defensive actions of 13.01% (nominally a forward, but the stats of a central defender). Against Philadelphia in June, he lined up on the wing, but exhibited the usage rate of a holding midfielder (11.67%/11.11%, with a 89.3% pass accuracy). Midfield possession numbers are very important for the present tactical setup of the Sounders roster, and Roldan's demonstrated ability to hold up a high distribution role is an important lesson to remember from 2015. His second-to-last start, also at "forward" was one of two appearances playing as a pure attacker, recording a defense share of only 2.31%. Roldan's role flexibility had a significant impact on the character of his play:

RoldanMid2

The positive relationship (see the trendline) between pass share and accuracy is characteristic of MLS midfielders in general - not simply a feature of Roldan's game... but as we look back at 2015 it's worth remembering that he was asked to be both a low-risk and an high-risk midfielder, and was reasonably productive, at times, in both roles (so far as can be described by chance creation). This is not to say there weren't rough patches in the rookie season. Lining up on the wing against Kansas City, in June, Roldan struggled to find the game on either side of the ball, registering usage rates below 6% (the bottom left point of the top graph). Quoting Realio's player ratings from that game:

I really feel he is a quality technical player who needs more touches and to be used differently, but I also think you need to make the most in whatever role you are utilized. On Saturday Roldan became a shuttler type who barely touched the ball and just added to a compact mess in the middle of the field.

Roldan exhibited well-below-average (for a midfielder) pass shares under 8% on four other occasions, but that level of distribution is often a feature of at least one midfielder in Seattle's system (Lamar Neagle exhibits ~7% pass share). Pure wing attackers often take on low responsibility in distribution (e.g. Ethan Finlay, Fabian Castillo), but Roldan wasn't particularly goal-dangerous (despite some close calls and miserly woodwork) or threatening in 1v1 isolation against defenders. His upfield passing was accurate, but his crossing was not:

Player Cross Accuracy (%)
Rose 11.1
Thomas 13.6
Neagle 17.1
Roldan 17.7
Martins 18.8
Remick 21.1
Pineda 29.2
Pappa 29.6
Mears 30.6
Friberg 31.8

Roldan had the 4th worst rate of crossing success on the Sounders among players recording at least 20 attempts over the course of the season, and performed well below the MLS midfielder average of ~28%. Lamar Neagle's play on the wing is justified by Sigi Schmid's regular use of a third, withdrawn forward. Roldan, like Andy Rose before, has demonstrated he has more to offer to the team from the center of midfield.

The good news is that Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid seems to recognize this. Schmid said he saw Roldan playing mostly as a central midfielder next year -- either as a defensive mid or in a more advanced role. Roldan, too, said that he saw himself settling in as more of a No. 6. With the decline of Gonzalo Pineda and team need to develop alternatives to a healthy Osvaldo Alonso, 2016 should present that opportunity.

Raw data for this work was collected from OPTA via whoscored.com.