“It was kind of spontaneous, I didn’t expect it going into the game or even during the game. When Flaco came in, I was like ‘who’s playing right back?’”
That was what was going through Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan’s mind around the 65th minute of his team’s match against the New York Red Bulls last Sunday. Oniel Fisher, who started at right back, had to be substituted off due to a hamstring injury. Most people, including Roldan, assumed that the only natural defender on the bench, Tony Alfaro, would be the one to replace Fisher and send Gustav Svensson to right back. But that wasn’t in head coach Brian Schmetzer’s plans.
“It happened to be me, and I just want to do anything to help the team, and hopefully I was able to.”
Such a substitution isn’t necessarily a huge part of Schmetzer’s style, but it does represent a seemingly integral part of how the Sounders have constructed their roster. Roldan is just the latest example of a player who can play pretty much anywhere on the pitch. Brad Evans, whose Twitter bio even jabs at his seeming jack-of-all-trades role in Seattle, has played all over the pitch since joining in 2009. Two of the players signed by Schmetzer ahead of this season, Gustav Svensson and Harry Shipp, also have the ability to excel in more than one area of the pitch as well.
But Schmetzer is adamant that he doesn’t want a bunch of random guys that are good at many things but great at few. “I love the fact that they’re versatile in those types of moments. Sometimes you can be the jack-of-all-trades and master of none, I don’t want them to be there.” He said that playing Shipp deeper isn’t even “out of position” for him, because he’s a “two-way guy” that excels just as much in a deeper, central role as he does in an outside, attacking spot. “If Ozzie were to go down, or Cristian were to go down, Harry can slip in there. We know he can play up here, he can play as a 10, he’s pretty versatile that way.”
Schmetzer did admit that moving Roldan to right back was a bit of a risk, but one that was well worth the reward. “Cristian going out to right back, that was a bit of a stretch. That was just, we were at home and we wanted to keep the tempo high, and I didn’t want to push Gustav out there. That was just something on the fly, where that versatility does make an impact.”
Assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda, who played with Roldan in Seattle two seasons ago, said that even though Roldan’s best position is as a “number 8” (often referred to as a box-to-box midfielder), his athleticism helps him exceed anywhere. “He can play wherever because he’s physically really good, he’s fast, he has good fitness. He can play almost every position from the midfield or as a defender.”
So even on a team full of versatile players, Roldan probably stands out the most, thanks in part to his athleticism and penchant for hard work in both training and in matches. During his rookie season and in the early part of 2016, then-head coach Sigi Schmid never really found a permanent role for Roldan. He was often moved from more attacking roles to something similar to where he often plays now, but he never really settled until the second half of 2016. Lining him up next to Alonso in central midfield on a relatively permanent basis was one of the best decisions Schmetzer made during last season’s championship run.
And it seems to be paying off. After Sunday’s match, Schmetzer praised Roldan’s performance, especially considering his move to right back for the final 25 minutes. “He was absolutely fantastic—I love that kid. I love the whole team, but he was great. It should be an eye-opener to people above my pay grade.”
Roldan’s strong work rate is a good place to start when looking at the player’s progression over the last couple years, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the reasons that Roldan has clicked so well with Pineda is that he looks at the game on a deeper level that is more often associated with a coach than a player. Schmetzer said on Sunday that Roldan works very hard on his own to prepare for matches, studying film and his opponent prior to every game. Sure, the team always does that as a group, but Schmetzer singled out Roldan as a player that takes that initiative on his own outside of the organized sessions.
Schmetzer intimated that Roldan should be getting much more attention than he does from the soccer community, but it’s probably just a matter of time. “I thought that was one of his signature performances that we all see and understand and get used to, but, for the rest of the country, I thought he did great.”
Pineda said that Roldan has vastly improved on his tactical organization, and that his ability to cover not only for Alonso but for the entire team has made him an invaluable asset. “His effort is outstanding, he fills every gap that we have defensively and while his vision is getting much better. He will get much better, there are still things we can work on with him, but he’s a great guy and a great player to coach.”
So even though Roldan’s sudden shift to right back against the Red Bulls was a surprise to him, nobody was surprised at how well he handled himself. Humble as ever, Roldan shrugged off any notion that his task was daunting. “I think as a professional, you have to be ready for anything. You don’t necessarily plan it. You go into a game, and you just play.”