Few players can relate to the situation facing Jonathan Gonzalez during the past few months better than Cristian Roldan. Like Gonzalez, Roldan was not only eligible to play for multiple countries but was actually being recruited by them. Unlike Gonzalez, though, Roldan chose to play for the United States.
As much as Roldan said he’d have loved to play alongside Gonzalez — a fellow defensive midfielder — he was not about to second-guess someone else’s decision.
“I understand how stressful it can be, especially with two nations that are so big and so focused on bringing in new players,” said Roldan, who’s currently experiencing his first January camp with the U.S. men’s national team. “I think it’s a tough situation for him, dealing with all the media.
“The difficult part is when you’re living on your own in Mexico, there’s a lot of pressure. I was extremely lucky to have the amount of support that I had. My parents living two hours away [by plane], constantly giving me phone calls. Those reasons were why it was an easier decision for me. Jonathan is only 18, playing at one of the bigger clubs in Mexico [Monterrey]. I’m sure there was a ton of pressure.”
Roldan also admits that there were slightly different factors at play in his situation. As much as he wanted to get international experience, that was tempered by the reality that Guatemala has never been to a World Cup and El Salvador’s last trip was in 1982.
“First and foremost is the amount of time and chances I’ll get with the national team,” Roldan explained about his thought process of choosing a national team. “I wanted to be able to able to get called in pretty regularly; I thought that would help me on the international stage. The second thing was how competitive the team was — if their chances of going to the World Cup were very good. Those two things are probably why I chose the U.S.”
The emotional side — the part that has gotten so much attention in Gonzalez’s case — was a consideration, Roldan said, but not really the most important.
“There are smaller factors like the U.S. being so great to me and my family,” he said. “My family came here with nothing and raised a wonderful family. We’re so blessed to be in the situation we’re in because of the American dream. I felt like I owed the U.S. quite a bit and I wanted to give back any way I could.”
There’s certainly ample room for improvement to be made in the way players are recruited and identified, but Roldan was also reluctant to call out any egregious failings based on his own experience.
“The U.S. is an extremely big country, players can fall through the cracks, but academies are getting so much stronger and that’s going to be the way to go,” said Roldan, who didn’t play in the Developmental Academy system and was nearly overlooked for a college scholarship despite a standout out high school career.
“We’ve done a decent job of finding these guys and recruiting them,” Roldan continued, pointing to the number of Latinos on various youth national teams. “But I think it also falls on ourselves to have a great attitude, train hard, be a sponge and absorb that information as much as you can.”
Which is exactly what Roldan is currently trying to do during this stint with the U.S. national team. The current camp runs from Jan. 10-28, almost all of which is spent in practice sessions, as there will be only one game at the end. The extended camp presents players like Roldan a chance to make a lasting impression on the coaching staff.
“It almost operates like a club in preseason,” Roldan said, noting that he’s fully fit after dealing with a slight ankle injury after MLS Cup. “Your practices matter more than games. You want to be ready for every practice. It’s also nice to get to know these guys who have been part of this national team pool or this is their first time. It’s cool to just be beside them.”