Put yourself in Alex Roldan’s shoes for a second. You’re coming off a second professional season in which you’ve played about 200 fewer minutes than you had in your first. You’ve just been informed that the team who drafted you, in the city you’ve now lived your entire adult life and for whom your brother plays no longer requires your services.
Chances are, no MLS team is more likely to believe in your professional potential than the Sounders and the best you can probably hope for somewhere else is a chance to try out. Not only must that be a significant gut punch, but it also probably forces you to rethink your career prospects.
This was the very real situation facing Roldan around this time last year.
Rather than hanging his head, Roldan was apparently determined to give it another shot from the moment he found out his contract wasn’t being renewed. But it wasn’t just self-belief that got him a new contract, it was a willingness to completely re-imagine his game. After playing primarily as a central midfielder at Seattle University and mostly as a wide midfielder in his first two professional seasons, Roldan put in the work required to recreate himself as a right back.
The work paid off well enough not just to convince the Sounders to sign him as Kelvin Leerdam’s primary backup, but to earn starts in all four playoff games, including MLS Cup. All that was more than enough for Sounder at Heart readers to name him Breakout Player of the Year, earning 46.3% of the vote and easily beating out João Paulo (32.5%) and Nouhou (20.4%).
It would be fair to argue that both João Paulo and Nouhou had better overall seasons, but both were also largely known commodities. João Paulo basically lived up to his Designated Player contract, while Nouhou emerged as a reliable starter, but Roldan went from literally being cut to starting the four most important matches of the season. Beyond that, the coaches saw enough in him that he could very well enter 2021 preseason as the penciled in starter.
None of that should suggest Roldan’s game is without holes. After a particularly strong performance in the first playoff game, Roldan’s holes were exposed to varying degrees in the next three games. He was sometimes a bit overly aggressive and rarely showed the confidence he had in his better performances.
Still, the most exciting part about Roldan’s emergence is that he’s still got plenty of room to grow. The Sounders went 3-1-3 in his 7 starts, which included four playoff games and three others on the road with rotated lineups. He’s already shown himself to be a solid crosser, good in possession and at least competent defensively. Given another full preseason and more reps with the first team, Roldan could still emerge as a frontline starter.