SEATTLE — Thanks to international duty (and Osvaldo Alonso’s injury), the last two Seattle Sounders matches looked rather dire as Brian Schmetzer was forced to experiment with his starting XI to compensate for the lack of players. They had already been without Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, and Alonso against DC last Wednesday, but Sunday’s match compounded the problem further as Nicolas Lodeiro served his suspension against San Jose. In both matches, salvation came from a sort-of-unlikely-but-not-really source: midfielder Cristian Roldan.
Despite earning his first international cap, Roldan was sent back to Seattle and replaced by club teammate Dempsey for the Gold Cup knockout round. While his lone USMNT performance was solid if unassuming, his return to the Sounders couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only did he score the late winner in the epic comeback against DC, he scored a brace (and nearly a hat trick) on the way to a very well-deserved Man of the Match performance against San Jose.
Schmetzer chalks part of Roldan’s influence up to the boost he got from his time with the USMNT. “You could tell when he came back from national team camp that it kind of energized him a little bit. He senses that he can play at that level. We’ve always believed that he can play at that level, and now he’s actually finding that out for himself.”
Roldan said the most significant thing he learned about the international game from his time with the national team is the speed of play. “For me personally, the international level is a little bit faster. You have to think, you have to take a better first touch.”
Even though the situation that pushed Roldan into the number 10 spot in attacking midfield was Lodeiro’s suspension, he thinks he couldn’t have done it without his experience in the Gold Cup. “Maybe in the first part of the season, I wasn’t able to play as a number 10 because the speed of play is so much faster and defensively you’re always on the hot seat. Now that maybe it’s slowed down a little bit, I was able to step in there and play my part.”
Schmetzer agreed, but noted that Roldan’s international experience helped him on both a mental level as well as a physical one. “That little bit of self-reflection and confidence and knowing that he can play at that level helped him down here.” The Sounders coach even takes a little of the blame for why we haven’t seen Roldan break out in an attacking role with the Sounders until now, in part because he’s such a versatile player. “What I think about Cristian is that he can do multiple things, and we’ve almost hindered his notoriety,” Schmetzer said. “He does so many things for the good of the team, and he sacrifices parts of his game for the good of the team.”
As for his specific performance on Sunday night, Roldan said that the team is “clicking” in a way they hadn’t really this season. “We scored 7 goals in 2 games without our big time guys. Anytime you can do that, that’s definitely a positive.” But Roldan wasn’t without his regrets, showing the humble side of his personality that often comes out when he’s being praised after a match. He cited the last time he scored two goals in a match—for the University of Washington against San Diego State—and said his last hat trick was even further back than that.
Roldan lamented his selfishness on his late chance that hit the post, though I doubt most of us begrudged him the chance at a third goal on the night. “Unfortunately, I was a little selfish on that last chance ... I don’t want to see it. Joevin [Jones] was shaking his head at me.” He said he apologized to Jones a number of times and hoped the Sounders left back would forgive him. “But he did miss that chance early that I gave him. Maybe he won’t be too mad at me.”
The first goal of the night and Roldan’s first was off a long throw-in from right back Kelvin Leerdam that Gustav Svensson flicked into the middle of the box. “My role was to crash the box after the flick, hoping that there was a flick. But yeah, we trained that in practice.” He praised Leerdam's ability with throw-ins, saying that it gives the team a new weapon on set pieces. “You have to take advantage of that opportunity. It slows the game down, slows the tempo down.”
Even though the consensus is probably that Roldan and Alonso form the best defensive midfield pairing, Svensson and Jordy Delem played those roles very well on Sunday. Roldan specifically praised Svensson, who he said was in probably his best position. “Gustav has been, ironically for me, the MVP of the last two games. He’s good, he can play there as a 6 by himself, he’s much like Ozzie defensively. He’s just strong, wins his battles, both aerial and on the ground. He covers so much ground, he’ll help the team in any way.” Perhaps hinting at his own preferred position after his epic performance on Sunday, Roldan said that he thinks Svensson should probably start in the slot next Alonso when the latter is healthy.
The Sounders’ two wins had something very interesting in common: all of their goals were scored in the second half. In the match against San Jose, Schmetzer said he could tell that Roldan learned a lot from the first half that sparked his performance in the second. Roldan was tasked with sticking to Anibal Godoy both on offense and defense, and in the first half he fulfilled the latter responsibility but struggled a bit in attack.
“There were some learning moments for Cristian in that first half, because I thought Godoy was good for them as always,” Schmetzer said. “Cristian, as the game progressed, was able to think through how to get the better of Godoy in the second half.” Roldan said that once the team managed to contain the Earthquakes defensively, it freed them up to counterattack down the pitch to create the chances that turned into the Sounders’ three goals. “We were able to score on the opportunities that we had.”