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International duty reaffirms expectations for Cristian Roldan and Waylon Francis going into 2019

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The two Sounders are set to join preseason with added fitness and form from time with national teams.

Panama v United States Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Cristian Roldan and Waylon Francis concluded their respective national team camps playing against one another in a United States vs. Costa Rica match that featured both going the full 90. With the match concluded and the camps finished, the two players are now free to join the rest of the Sounders as the preseason ramps up to a ten-day, three-match trip to Arizona that will begin February 6th.

When Roldan and Francis do join Sounders camp, they’ll likely be ahead of the curve both physically and technically, having recently played competitive minutes for their countries. That can only be good news for Schmetzer and staff, who will surely welcome the increased intensity that should result from adding two fully fit veterans to the mix.

But while Roldan and Francis should both raise the level of competition at camp, the two players will enter the preseason with vastly different expectations for the 2019 season. With Osvaldo Alonso’s departure to Minnesota United, Roldan is set to fully inherit the title of Sounders’ midfield linchpin — a storied role for the franchise. Conversely, Francis will begin his preseason as the Sounders’ third-choice left back after numerous rumors that he would be traded amounted to nothing.

In Saturday’s friendly, both did well enough to prove they’re ready to meet, if not exceed, the expectations set for their respective roles in 2019.

For the USA, Roldan played an attacking central midfield role in Berhalter’s 4-3-3 system in which he was tasked with finding soft spots between opposing lines, connecting possession from back to front, and acting as a first line of defense in the team’s counterpressing system. In his first match of the Berhalter era against Panama, Roldan performed well in all three areas.

Against Costa Rica, Roldan and the rest of the USMNT had a tougher time, especially in the first half as the Ticos pressed high up the pitch and made the game speed noticeably faster than in the Panama match. Costa Rica did a particularly good job of closing down Will Trapp — the man tasked with starting the U.S. attack — before right back/holding mid Nick Lima could slide in to create the defensive midfield overload that he and Michael Bradley had ran to perfection against Panama. With Trapp and Lima pinned back and struggling to generate meaningful possession and/or slow down Costa Rica’s counterattack, Roldan slid further back to help in the defensive midfield.

Playing from deeper in the American half, Roldan’s responsibilities lined up closer to what the Sounders may expect from him as a number 6/8 in their 4-2-3-1 — he broke up opposing counter attacks in the midfield and helped the team play out of pressure from their own half. Roldan did well with both tasks, launching dangerous balls to wingers on the counter and providing key tackles to swing momentum in the midfield. While there were a few moments of technical sloppiness (the one area he’ll need improve to take his game to an MLS best XI/USMNT-regular level), the ever-evolving midfielder did more than enough to show he should be one of league’s most dominant center mids in 2019.

For Costa Rica, Francis played in his usual left back position. As is the norm, the MLS veteran joined in the attack often, launching a handful of crosses and finishing the match with a majority of his pass attempts in the attacking half. But while Francis regularly got in good positions going forward, his contributions weren’t enough to spur any quality chances for a Costa Rica team that struggled to threaten goal for most of the match.

Defensively, Francis performed well when matched up against Corey Baird, registering three tackles, three recoveries, and one interception in the first 60 minutes of the match. During that time frame, Costa Rica only allowed two shots on target.

Unfortunately for Francis and his compatriots, U.S. substitutes Sebastian Lletget, Jonathan Lewis, and Christian Ramirez added a wrinkle to the U.S. attack that proved decisive in the match. On the first goal, Trapp’s excellent field-switching half-volley unlocked Lewis down the left, and the NYCFC winger delivered a quick cross to a hard-charging Lletget, who nodded it home. As the furthest wide defender, Francis was the closest to Lletget on the back post, and therefore was at least somewhat culpable for the goal.

However, in fairness to Francis, the speed of Trapp’s switch and Lewis’s service combined with the number of players the U.S. pushed into the box (thanks to impressive running from Lletget and Roldan) created a three-on-three battle for the header in which the defenders were running towards their own goal — a nightmare scenario for any backline. In fact, Costa Rican midfielder Allen Cruz should shoulder more of the blame than Francis on the play since Cruz was the one marking Lletget before the American made a surge into the penalty area.

On the second goal, Francis appeared more egregiously out of position than on the first, as he ended up on the wrong side of eventual U.S. goal scorer Paul Arriola only a few passes after a U.S. goal kick. At first glance, losing a mark on a goal kick seems like a cardinal mistake, but here again, a closer inspection absolves Francis of much of the blame.

To start the play, Costa Rica positioned themselves with four players pressing the U.S. penalty area. As a result, Francis had to position himself deep in the U.S. half in order to stay connected to his team. American goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s heads-up decision to play long combined with Christian Ramirez’s impressive headed flick meant that Francis ended up stuck in a foot race with Arriola in which the latter had a 20-yard head start.

As with the first goal, Francis found himself in the middle of a defensive breakdown that started before he even entered the fray. Though the Costa Rican international failed to put out the fires around him at the end of the game, he can’t be blamed for starting them, either.

All in all, the national team performances of Roldan and Francis should encourage coaches and fans alike. While Roldan is likely to see substantially more minutes than Francis this year, both will need to be in good form if the Sounders hope to contend for the Supporters’ Shield in 2019. With the team looking to buck the trend of slow starts that has kept that trophy frustratingly out of reach, Saturday’s international friendly was a promising sign that the roster is ready to deliver from top to bottom.