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Is Alex Roldan Seattle’s right back of the future?

Don’t let a couple poor performances overshadow his massive step forward.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Coming off the dispiriting loss in MLS Cup where he did not perform terribly well, it is reasonable to ask if Alex Roldan can become the day to day starter at right back for the Seattle Sounders, and if social media is any indication, fans are skeptical.

However, it is obvious that the coaching staff really likes what they see in Alex, and there is every reason to believe that the position is his to lose going into next season.

Roldan’s is an easy story to like and he is easy to root for. Of course, this is professional soccer, and at the end of the day no hometown love or sibling connection will overcome poor performances. The thing is, Roldan performed exceptionally well in 2020. He made the most of the chance he was given when Kelvin Leerdam went down injured and seems to have earned the trust of Brian Schmetzer and the rest of the coaching staff.

Alex played his college ball at Seattle University and was a starter all four years. He tallied 18 goals and 17 assists and won First Team honors in the WAC in 2017. The Sounders selected him 22nd overall in the 2018 SuperDraft and have been high on his prospects in MLS since the day he arrived. But he got swallowed up in the stellar group of midfielders the Sounders already had on the roster. His path to a starting position in midfield was blocked by a lot of more experienced talent, including his older brother Cristian.

After he was released by the Sounders after the 2019 season, Alex came back with the understanding that he would be learning a new position under the tutelage of assistant coach Djimi Traore. The move from midfield to fullback was a labor of film study and training, and by all measures, Roldan did a very good job in his three starts and 18 appearances during the regular season. He started all four of the Sounders’ playoff matches, in part due to nagging injuries to Leerdam and coach Schmetzer’s penchant for running the same lineup in the playoffs.

MLS Cup aside – I’ll get to that in a minute – there is a lot to like about Roldan as a person and a player, and it is easy to see why the coaching staff might be looking to him to anchor the right side of the defense for the next few seasons.

Roldan proved to be strong on the ball and pretty good in the attack this season. He doesn’t have the breakout speed that Nouhou and Brad Smith showcase on the left side of the formation, but his crosses are accurate and he possesses the ball well in the attacking end. He plays out of the back with confidence, something Sounders defenders have to be able to do.

It’s clear that Roldan is still learning the intricacies of playing on the back line, and game film confirms that at times he finds himself out of position and forced to recover, leading to rash challenges like the one that earned him an early yellow card in the Western Conference Championship game against Minnesota. But to his credit, and in a sign that Schmetzer trusts Alex in big game situations, he played strong defense while on a caution in a very big game. Commentators and fans expected Roldan to be subbed off after picking up that caution, but Schmetzer left him on the field until well after halftime, a real show of confidence from the coach in a very big moment.

His play in MLS Cup was not as laudable.

It is possible Alex simply wasn’t ready for the spotlight of an MLS Cup, but the Sounders’ poor performance on that night in Columbus was a team letdown. Playing in front of Alex, Joevin Jones had one of his worst outings of the season. João Paulo was atypically sloppy in the midfield, and the pressure on the defense as a whole was heightened. It’s hard to find any Sounders player who had a great night in Columbus on Dec. 12, and Alex Roldan was not an exception.

Still, it is clear the coaching staff has a lot of faith in Alex Roldan. He advanced tremendously in 2020 and it is fair to expect that the right back position is his to lose going into 2021. With another full offseason of growth and training, he could anchor that side of the defense for years to come, and at a price tag that has to be very attractive to the club.

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