What started as a strange offseason for Seattle Sounders fans has transitioned into a preseason training camp with a lot of questions surrounding the team. The lack of movement on a collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union has meant Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey’s hands have been tied regarding player movement. However, in recent weeks the Sounders have been linked with numerous defensive midfielders and a centerback, the two positions the team has identified as their biggest needs. This leads us to the elephant in the room...What does that mean for Cristian Roldan’s position this season?
Given that the midfielder targets the Sounders have been going after command a transfer fee and/or a salary well into the TAM/DP range, there seems to be some logic pointing to Roldan shifting to a wide position. Is Roldan’s best position as a winger? No, probably not. Assuming the Sounders bring in a defensive midfielder like Joao Paulo, moving Roldan to the wing allows the Sounders to field their best possible starting XI, at least until the summer transfer window.
The only time we’ve seen Roldan have an extended run out at right winger was the second half of the season in 2018. From July 25 through the playoffs that season, Roldan played 15 games out of 15 at right mid, compiling three goals and three assists during that time. More interestingly, the Sounders were 12-3-0 during that run. He has played on the wing at other times, but this is the longest period he’s done it. Those goal+assist numbers aren’t incredible by any stretch of the imagination, but moving Roldan out to the wing that season allowed the Sounders to get Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson on the field at the same time. Roldan had to sacrifice his best position so the Sounders could get their best lineup on the field, which is something he’ll likely have to do at least for part of this season.
While he didn’t play nearly as much on the wing in 2019, he did increase his production rate. In seven starts as a right sided midfielder he had three goals and two assists. Combined with his 15 starts in 2018, we have a player who contributed six goals, and six assists in 23 starts.
Roldan is not a bad winger at all. Given an extended run on the wing, especially from the start of the season, he’ll produce just fine. His defensive actions and possession retention skills will be very useful for the Sounders’ press and possession-based offense while allowing the team to be more solid in the middle of the park. Having Roldan, Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Raul Ruidiaz leading Seattle’s offensive line (and press!) is an enticing proposition, but it should not be viewed as a long term solution. Given that the drop off to players like Harry Shipp and Handwalla Bwana, it makes sense for Roldan to start the season on the wing.
There’s really no way around the facts: Cristian Roldan is a top tier defensive midfielder in MLS. His versatility is both an asset and a curse. The Sounders will go into Concacaf Champions League and this MLS regular season with 3 new starters on their backline. Brad Smith will likely be replaced at leftback by Joevin Jones. Xavier Arreaga will be given the No. 1 starting spot at centerback, with his partner yet to be determined. It makes complete and total sense for the Sounders to invest in midfield solidity given the uncertainty of their backline. In the short term, that means Roldan will likely need to shift out wide. But Roldan needs to be at the center of the Sounders’ midfield plans for the long term.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to Ian L. from American Soccer Analysis for the help pulling the fancy data. Be sure to check out their work on their site!