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What to expect from Cristian Roldan as a right mid (a lot)

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The Sounders veteran will bring an uncommon blend of quality and tenacity to the position.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

Cristian Roldan will kick off the Sounders 2020 campaign as their starting right mid. This much has been more or less confirmed by the team’s signing of João Paulo (primarily a DP holding midfielder), preseason friendlies, and direct words from both him and head coach, Brian Schmetzer.

What to expect from Roldan as a right mid is only a slightly greater mystery since the now-veteran player has given us plenty of tape at the position over the last few years. Helping our understanding even more is the mini-master class he gave on the position at a post-practice presser earlier in the week.

There, he broke down the aspects of the position he considers his strengths, which fall largely in line with the areas he’s already excelled at in the past.

Tucking inside

Stop me if you’ve read this before: A lot of the Sounders wide midfielders like to tuck inside to help build out play and also as means to free up space for outside backs to get into the attack and create wide overloads.

In 2018, this was especially true when Roldan and Harry Shipp manned the outside midfield positions during the team’s record breaking nine-game win streak. That year, Roldan and Shipp’s previous experience as center mids combined with Ozzie Alonso and Gustav Svensson’s destroyer tendencies to create a system where the outside mids had more or less free rein to tuck in and interchange as they wanted, in turn giving the outside backs free rein (and lots of space) to get forward, all while Alonso and Svensson held it down in the back.

Last year, that system changed significantly with the addition of Jordan Morris, who, thanks to his natural speed and impressive 1v1 ability, tends to stay wide and go at opposing outside backs more directly rather than combining with his own outside back and creating overloads. Still not shy about sending numbers forward, the Sounders instead created more overloads in the middle of the park by giving Roldan greater license to get forward from center mid than either Alonso or Svensson had.

Last year’s lopsided 4-2-3-1 changed slightly when Victor Rodriguez was supplanted in the ideal 11 by the seemingly more direct Joevin Jones. The reason Jones for Rodriguez only presented slight change in the Sounders’ style is that Jones also preferred to tuck inside and play more as a possession player than a 1v1 burner. On the spectrum of tucking in/keeping possession verse staying wide/going direct, Jones did stay wider than Rodriguez, but still played a style closer to him than to Morris.

All that’s to say Roldan will operate more in the Rodriguez/Jones/Shipp mold than the Morris mold. This is even truer now than it was in 2018 when Roldan had his longest spell as an outside mid for the team. That’s because in 2018, Roldan’s opposite winger was either Shipp or Rodriguez, who were both less direct in style than he was. Now, he’ll be paired with Morris, who conversely is much more direct in style. As such, unlike in 2018, he’ll need to be the outside mid that carries more of the possession duties than his opposite winger.

Or to hear Roldan put it, “Jordan’s a completely different player than me. I mean he’s just naturally gifted in terms of his pace and his ability to change direction really fast. You know, obviously I have the endurance to get up the field and play in those soft areas. Jordan’s more of a one v one master.”

A knock-on effect of Roldan playing more in those “soft areas” in between lines will be additional freedom for Kelvin Leerdam to get forward. Given the outside back prolific’s stats from last year (the first half of which he spent pinned behind Morris with less room to roam), it’s very possible the fourth year Sounder could have a career year in terms of goals and assists. We saw examples of how that might work in Wednesday’s scrimmage, as Leerdam repeatedly got forward and registered a couple assists.

Endurance and grit

Beyond the ability to tuck inside and play between lines, Roldan’s quote identified another key trait he brings to outside mid: endurance.

On that point he elaborated, “Right mid and left is almost a battle of endurance, of fitness, of making [the outside back] chase you. I don’t mind doing the chasing and sometimes I’m going to have to do that against an attacking minded left back. But at the same time, as he attacks, I’m ready to counter.”

Here, Roldan may separate himself as a cut above any other Sounders winger in the Schmetzer era. While Rodriguez was on another level keeping the ball and creating attacks by tucking in and playing in between lines, and Jones put a uniquely defensive spin on the position by bringing a defender’s know-how and positioning to Seattle’s signature banks of four, neither player could pivot from offense to defense and back again with Roldan’s intensity and consistency. Even Morris, whose athleticism and team-first attitude make him a formidable defender from the wing, lacks the pure ball-winning ability of Roldan, who, lest we forget, functioned as one of the better defensive midfielders in MLS over the last three years.

Though Roldan is as well-rounded a player as you will find on the Sounders or in MLS as a whole, his tireless motor may actually be his most exceptional trait. Putting that ability on the wing will allow the team to press higher, create more turnovers, and become even more dangerous on the counter.

The João Paulo effect

Besides breaking down in excellent detail exactly how to create attacking overloads and win endurance battles on the wing, Roldan also took a moment in his presser to identify the strengths of his new teammate, João Paulo, who will likely replace him as the Sounders de facto “No. 8.” In doing so, he mentioned a key ripple that the new signing will bring to the team.

In reference to the Brazilian’s passing ability, Roldan said, “I’m looking forward for a lot of guys like Nico and Raul to connect with him, because he’ll find you from a lot deeper position — something that we may not have had the last couple years.”

Coming from a player who himself has grown leaps and bounds over the years at passing through lines and jump starting attacks from deep, Roldan’s comments should not be taken lightly. Ever the consummate teammate and leader, he is essentially passing the torch of the No. 8 role while acknowledging that his successor may bring an even higher level of passing to the position than he could.

If he’s right, which remains a big if, the Sounders should be lethal in attack. In addition to Roldan bringing a center mid’s quality to the wing in possession and raising the team’s ability to press and counter, João Paulo may bring an ability to pass through lines and work out of pressure the team has never seen before.

Whether the Sounders can get can get an almost entirely new backline to gel in time for CCL remains a different question. Either way, expect a lot of goals.