One of the big questions surrounding Cristian Roldan heading into this season was if he could take his game to the next level. Cliché as that may sound, there was some truth in it.
Up until this year, Roldan had thrived as sort of a value-add player. As good and versatile as he has been over the past few seasons, I think his production was generally considered something that was nice to have but not necessarily an absolute necessity. He’d chip in with goals and assists, to be sure, but his role was more facilitating than leading. Whether or not that was literally true, that was the perception, and with the loss of a leader like Osvaldo Alonso, the Sounders were just going to need a bit “more” from him, whatever that meant.
We’re now about a third of the way through 2019 and it sure seems like Roldan is providing that. It won’t always be his scoring that does it, but in the last two weeks his goals have proved vitally important.
This time it was the Sounders’ only goal in a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on Saturday. Like he did the previous week in Minnesota, Roldan scored from long distance. Perhaps more than last week’s, this one felt like the sort of goal that may be a bit more repeatable as Roldan deftly controlled an attempted clearance off his chest and then set himself up for a half-volley that was virtually unstoppable.
Roldan scores in the 5th minute. Pick that out, son! 1-0 Seattle pic.twitter.com/KZPIqSe5hd— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) May 12, 2019
Roldan was predictably humble afterward, telling Steve Zakuani in a postgame interview, “Sometimes you get lucky twice in a row, but I’ll take it.”
Later in the locker room he joked about how some teammates had been giving him a hard time about all of his goals being “poached” and how he was just trying to prove them wrong.
All the talk aside, Roldan’s actions suggest he’s a player whose game continues to evolve and improve. We know he’s as versatile as anyone on the team. We know he can play the role of pure 6 when needed, but he continues to show that even when deployed deeper he’s capable of making game-changing plays. In the last two weeks alone, those two plays are the difference between one point and four. The most recent delivered a win over the team with the league’s best record. I don’t know how many more goals we can expect like those two, but but he’s starting to do the things you’d expect from a “star.”
Maybe Roldan is a goal scorer
This all got me thinking about the way we think about goal scorers. I don’t think anyone would necessarily think of Roldan in that way, but that might not be fair. We now have a sample size of more than 10,000 minutes for Roldan, and while I don’t think he’ll ever be a consistent double-digit goalscorer, his goal-scoring prowess compares very favorably to players with vaguely similar playing profiles.
In fact, among players who I’d classify as two-way or box-to-box midfielders who have played at least 3,000 career MLS minutes, only Felipe Gutierrez (.35), Damir Kreilach (.33) and Sebastian Lletget (.16) score more goals from open play per 90 minutes during their MLS careers than Roldan (.14). Notably, all three players have spent more time in advanced positions and only Gutierrez averaged more combined tackles and interceptions (3.6) last year than Roldan (3.3). (Of note, Mark-Anthony Kaye is currently averaging .18 goals per 90, but he has played just about 2,500 minutes in his still burgeoning MLS career.)
The list of players Roldan is ahead of in terms of MLS career open-play scoring rate is perhaps even more impressive, as it includes stalwarts like Sacha Kljestan (.12) and Benny Feilhaber (.12); USMNT contemporaries likes Darlington Nagbe (.12) and Kellyn Acosta (.11); and legendary figures like Jermaine Jones (.13). A host of very good MLS players like Alejandro Bedoya (.10), Jonathan Dos Santos (.09), Jonathan Osorio (.08), Dax McCarty (.06), Michael Bradley (.06) and Roger Espinoza (.04) don’t even come close to matching Roldan in this regard.
Granted, I don’t know that any of those players are exactly considered “goal scorers” either. They were, however, the type of player from whom you expect a certain amount of production, despite playing deeper on the field. They are also players who routinely got national-team call-ups, and many even played significant roles on World Cup teams.
Add in the fact that Roldan is still just 23, and it’s not at all hard to see him developing into the sort of goal-scoring, defensive-minded midfielder that MLS has rarely seen.
More active Morris
It’s been an interesting start to the year for Jordan Morris. After a strong first three games, he’s gone a bit cold with just one goal since. We know goals come and go, though, so it’s the process that should be of more concern.
While I think we can say his game has matured in some areas, it was at least a little alarming that he had just five total shots in his past seven games heading into the Dynamo match.
The Dynamo match, in that regard, was a step in the right direction. Morris had a season-high four shots, all from inside the area. (Let’s put aside that he probably should have scored at least one of them.)
It wasn’t just the shots — Morris was just generally more active. His 44 touches were the most he’s had since the Real Salt Lake match and the third-most he’s had in any game this year. The game’s opening play, I thought, was a good example of his increased aggressiveness as he controlled a ball down the wing and immediately started an attack.
One big difference seems to be a level of comfort playing on the wing as opposed to being a lone forward. Counterintuitive as that may be, Morris now seems to be better suited out wide, or perhaps more accurately, playing with another forward.
As the action map above shows, Morris didn’t have a ton of successful actions in or around the box, but he was far more aggressive and was very close to combining with Raúl Ruidíaz on several occasions. Let’s hope it’s a sign of more good things to come.
Not perfect, but good enough
The Sounders registered their first shutout in six games, allowing the Dynamo to put just one of their 11 shots on frame. Admittedly, that probably overstates just how well the defense looked, but let’s give them some credit for being the first team to keep the Dynamo from scoring this year.
A large portion of the credit for that should go to Brad Smith, a player we don’t normally think of as a particularly strong defender. Faced off with Alberth Elis, though, Smith rose to the occasion. Elis was kept in check throughout the match, rarely creating any danger after an early header he put high. The performance was so strong that Smith even got the attention of another Brad.
Elis still trying to figure out how to get out of Smith’s back pocket https://t.co/PEZQsAlZpu— brad evans (@brad_evans3) May 12, 2019
At least part of what made the performance so successful was Smith’s ability to join the attack himself. Although he did not register an assist, Smith did connect on a season-high four key passes and was constantly forcing the Dynamo defenders into awkward positions.
This was a team, mind you, that came into the match averaging more than two goals and 15 shots per game. A few quality chances aside, the Sounders did a wonderful job of keeping the Dynamo in check.