Part 1: Is Cristian Roldan Good At Soccer?
I've been watching all of the complaining by a certain segment of USMNT fans about Cristian Roldan and it inspired me to do a little research.
I’m not a Sounders fan and until pretty recently I didn't have an opinion about Cristian Roldan. I watch almost every USMNT game but I don't schedule around friendlies so I hadn't seen much of him playing for the US or for a West Coast MLS team. I figured he must be pretty good because when I turned on MLS Cups he was on my TV a lot and I would occasionally see Matt Doyle or other MLS followers say something like:
I was surprised when I started to see the overwhelmingly negative commentary from the USMNT internet leading into Gold Cup 2021. In my experience, when the USMNT "fans" decide a guy sucks they’re often wrong. Beasley, Jozy, Wondo, Bedoya, Yedlin, Bradley and even Landon have all been subject to group-think slander.
I decided to educate myself on Roldan and started with the stats, figuring if the stats say he sucks then he probably sucks and I could stop there. Well…the stats don’t think he sucks. Below are his Fotmob ratings since 2017 when he first started getting called up.
Next, I took a look at the ASA G+, which is their attempt to capture a player’s on-ball value compared to other players at the same position. Below are Roldan’s scores. For real context you should go to their website and get the detailed explanations but the TLDR is that 0.0 is a good score. In 2017 he had the 10th highest score in the whole league playing as a DM in a double pivot and then in 2021 he had the 13th highest score while playing as a 10.
He was in Opta’s MLS Best XI in 2017 and 2019. In sum, Cristian Rodan is a stat sheet darling.
But "game’s not played on a spreadsheet mate." Just because all of the event data based computer models think he’s doing a great job doesn't tell me enough.
What about the Ol’ eye test?
My next step was to check in with the people actually watching all of his games while I was sleeping. The short summary is that every person who works for the Sounders or who regularly writes about the Sounders for money or passion LOVES Cristian Roldan.
They all agree that he’s great and the only live arguments seem to be whether he should play DM or RW.
The Seattle front office is widely considered the best in the league, they make the playoffs every year and they've been to 4 MLS Cup with 2 wins since 2016. Roldan has played every available minute of those playoffs.
UPDATE: They just won CCL without a loss with Roldan as the clear Man of the Tournament in my opinion.
The Seattle analytics department is abnormally integrated.
"They embrace the data, and I’ve never met a staff that is this willing to take data on board in the decision-making process." — Video Analyst Tom Childs
There are three main components to Ramineni’s job. The first is helping General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey and the scouting team find new players. The second is helping coaches and players prepare for the next opponent. And the third is general sports science and monitoring training loads. He and his team collect data through GPS and heart rate trackers, software that Ramineni created with the help of Tenney to take that information and formulate reports.
Seattle showed what the organization thinks about Roldan in the sincerest manner :
Cristian Roldan has come to terms with Seattle Sounders FC on a contract that will secure him for the next five years, according to a reliable source with knowledge of the deal. The contract is valued at $4 million and is **something rarely seen in MLS, as all five years are guaranteed**, clearly cementing his status as a cornerstone of the franchise.
Despite declaring their institutional feelings at the bank, the way we all want our bosses to do so, they won’t stop praising the guy.
Gonzalo Pineda, a former El Tri player with 45 Mexico caps and 3 World Cup starts, appeared on a Sounders podcast with Steve Zakuani while he was a Seattle assistant. During their chat, Zakuani claimed that Pineda had been the best MF partner with Ozzy Alonso. At about minute 21. Pineda, said the following:
"Thanks for the comment about me and Ozzy but I disagree. Honestly I think Cristian is a much better player than me… he's fantastic, the way he can change the pace, the way he closes people down in midfield, he's very aggressive,also he's smarter every time."
Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders head coach who has played Roldan just about every minute possible for his entire tenure has some thoughts about Cristian too:
"As far as Cristian is concerned, I know that he got good results on some of the data sites out there in the data-verse, metaverse, whatever you guys want to call it," noted the coach, who called his team’s display a "determined" one. "But Cristian’s emotional ties to our success is what I prefer to look at. You can go on Sofascore, Fotmob, you guys can do all that. You guys can do all the data you want."But his emotional leadership on the field – when he presses, how he presses, the energy and the desire, the commitment to his team, to himself, to the game, is what makes him a special player," Schmetzer added. "Never gives up, whether it's the 1st minute, the 95th minute, 4th minute – that's his emotional contribution to the team. It’s far and away greater than any statistic that you guys can come up with."
Sounder at Heart has a weekly player ratings column with detailed explanations for the grades by the pseudonymous analyst, Realio. He also writes a year end roundup, here's a sample of those. If you want to understand Roldan’s game, you should read these weekly ratings.
This is astronomical growth. He has passed Alonso as the must-start defensive midfielder on the Sounders roster. If it weren’t for sample size, he’d likely be No. 1 on the 2017 ratings list. Cristian had a massive eight MOTM awards this last season, most on the team. He led the team in appearances (38), only missing one for a USMNT call up. He is resilient, effective, and a darn nice kid to boot. He showed toughness, playing through knocks and even broken bones. He dominated, whether he was paired with Goose, Ozzie, or Delem, on offense or defense. Even with a clunker in the final, he almost reached his regular-season grade in the playoffs, showing veteran poise in the postseason. He can play D-mid. He can play right back. He can be the 10 in the center. He can be a winger. He’s a damn good player and he’s ours.
MOTM = 4 High = 8 Low = 5
With 33 appearances, near-7 average throughout, and only a SINGLE below average match all season – Cristian Roldan was a bit under the radar in 2019 but had a phenomenal season. He continues to be a highly rated, resilient player who plays in 30-plus matches and ranks in the top five on the team ratings every year. Whether he plays his usual defensive midfielder position or switches out wide to support on a wing or in the defense, Cristian
succeeds anywhere on the field.
MOTM = 6 Reg Season, 1 Playoffs High = 8 Low =5
Cristian Roldan moved forward a line for most of 2021 and showed dynamic creation from the 10 and as a wide attacking player. Tactically brilliant, Roldan showed that his understanding of the game allows him to excel at pretty much any position. With Seattle needing a scoring threat, he often slotted into the attacking band, making diagonal wide runs into the corners and attacking from very advanced positions. Cristian ended the year with a stellar 6g/6a, adding 35 key passes, and having the second-best creation rate on the team. He also added considerable defensive bite from the front, consistently disrupting opponents with his pressure: over 350 pressures in the mid and attacking thirds this season.
Ok, those guys are possible homers, even if they don't praise other Sounders to the same degree, what about non-Seattle MLS watchers?
The Athletic recently did an anonymous survey of 21 MLS "Chief Soccer Officers" and it was basically Roldan propaganda. He was tied for most underrated, second for guy to start a franchise with, got votes for guy on best contract, for most underrated and for best midfielder. This quote is apparently representative of what multiple CSOs said according to the authors on their Allocation Disorder podcast:
"(Roldan) has an incredible competitive nature," said one CSO. "He’s a team guy, he controls the emotion of the team and he has great instincts in the game to do what the game needs when the game needs it."
MLS has a deal with Second Spectrum to provide tracking data and stats to the whole league and tactical camera footage, so it’s likely that the GMs all like Roldan because they’ve seen what he does to their teams repeatedly on video and know what kind of ground he covers and how often he's making the right play.
ETR hosts had him as second XI AM.
I could fill pages with praise from the people who regularly watch the guy play. He’s been dynamic in the center of the park, dynamic as an attacker, he’s fit, tactically sound and a top soccer athlete. His highest recorded sustained sprint speed as of last summer had him a bit faster than Tyler Adams this year in Germany. His peers in an MLSPA blind survey gave him the second most votes for fittest man in MLS and he’s constantly referred to as some sort of ironman by Sounders beat writers.
So what's he bad at you ask? He's not particularly bad at anything. His profile from MLS’s 24 under 24 series in 2017 includes comments from anonymous "technical staff" probably captures it about right.
His athleticism is an unbelievable asset. At the same time, I think his athleticism has limited his reason to improve technically, and we are seeing that to a certain degree. But he is on the verge, and capable of improving technically. If that happens, then he’s the complete package."
From watching games and the occasional video compilation available, I’d boil it down to, he’ll have the occasional heavy touch and isn't likely to try to dribble through a trap. He also isn't by any stretch of the imagination, a tricky dribbling winger.
This 1 minute video of him talking to Sounders academy kids could really sum up the argument for why he's a good player.
This is his Sounders tribute video after being voted team MVP. Deuce Is featured offering praise.
In conclusion, yes, he’s very good at football, very good at the running and fighting that's the heart of the modern game, while also having the vision and skill to pull off the sublime fairly often.
Roldan gets the sort of praise that you would expect for a player who’s contributions don’t show up on the stat sheet. He's constantly praised for dogged effort, covering for teammates, correctly triggering the press and tactical awareness. He gets all the "try hard hustle guy" praise while filling the stat sheet and stocking his highlight reel.
Below are videos of him doing some cool stuff.
Lung busting run at 90+3 while leading 3-0.
Part 2: Is Roldan good enough to play for the USMNT?
There's that old joke: If you and a buddy are being chased by a bear, you don't have to outrun the bear…
The answer to the question is self-evidently yes. He’s played well multiple times in the last year and clearly been one of the better players on the field multiple times. He was very good in the Gold Cup according to Gregg Berhalter, was excellent by any measure in his start against Martinique. He got the game winning assist in the Gold Cup quarterfinal and then helped hold Mexico scoreless for 60 minutes in the final. For anyone tempted to hand wave the Martinique game,it was the best the USMNT has looked in rolling a bum in the Gold Cup in who knows when? The 2019 Gold Cup team had to grind out a 3-2 win against Martinique, this same 2021 team barely beat Haiti 1-0 with Roldan watching, despite getting an 8th minute goal. He was the best player on the field in the Bosnia fitness friendly despite many people going blind and claiming the opposite. Carlon Carpenter posted a very useful video analysis of what the USMNT was trying to do against Bosnia and it was clear that Roldan was the guy actually doing what he was supposed to be doing, in contrast to Johnny Fútbol AND Acosta.
As an aside, it’s funny that twitter praise or even non-condemnation of Roldan tends to be wrapped in an "I don’t really rate him" defense to try to stave off the club badge boys. Noted non-fan of Roldan and one of the Scuffed Discord’s top posters made
a Roldan all touches comp of that game.
People pushed back against strawmen very hard after being confronted with the video evidence that their "lol Roldan stinks" tweets may have been more about the sender than the subject. The main argument seemed to be that he had a bad touch at the center circle which killed an attack 70 yards from goal, thus balancing out any positives. The "Roldán Standard" would basically fail any player in any game.
Is CR7 (still welcome in Nevada edition) one of the USMNT best XI with injuries and fatigue toggled off on your FIFA save? No, he isn’t, but that’s not how the game actually works. In real life, the only guy to play in the first 11 games of the Ocho was Brenden Aaronson and he promptly got hurt to miss games 12-14. We need a lot of players to man the positions where Roldan has excelled in MLS, in CCL and for the USMNT.
Two and a half games into WCQ when people were talking about Gregg’s seat getting hot in Honduras, after 2 draws and sitting on a third draw in the second half. He turned to Roldan when Pulisic limped off. The US then reeled off three goals unanswered and with Roldan having an obvious role in at least one of the goals,not that that’s the way to define a guy best known for all of the work he does off the ball.
Some people claim that Roldan has been bad or even terrible for the USMNT over the years. As I said in Part 1,I don't watch every January friendly or Nations League group stage game. I don't remember all these bad games people keep referencing so I went through player rating stories over the years, focusing on his starts. I only see one start where everyone agrees that Roldan was bad, the Canada NL game where everyone was rated poorly and Pulisic got pulled for cause.
I also found full games on YouTube from 2019, including a March game against Chile where he was clearly good.
Roldan vs. His MLS/USMNT peers
Here are Fotmob scores from 2017-2021 with other MLS midfielders who’ve gotten Ocho starts, Gregg Velasquez’s MLS flavor of the week, Fredo Morales and Ecuador’s captain (and Bundesliga regular) Carlos Gruezo.
Below are the duel wins and percentage for the same guys. I include this because some people implied that he isn't strong in the "cage match" despite him having lead MLS in duels won in 2017 when he was asked to be that guy.
Here are the ASA G+ scores for those players with a couple of bonus players thrown in.TLDR, none of them are close to Roldan over the years in on-ball production.
Gregg’s fine with calling and playing MLS players but absolutely refused to give Roldan a chance in the Ocho. The one MLS midfielder regularly on the roster to not get a WCQ start is by far the best rated by stats and MLS professionals. He’s also the one who plays the most prominent role on the most successful team.
In 2022, it's gotten even more mysterious as he's been playing the wing for Seattle across from Morris, setting up as close to an apples to apples comparison as we’re likely to get. There's nobody who's watched those games who thinks Jordan Morris was better than Roldan in the first three months of 2022. Morris has played in 6 straight WCQs while Roldan is left cooling his heels, getting 5 minutes in 6 games.
So what gives?
I’ve asked people for their reasoning and the best they come up with generally is pretty wishy washy talk about not being up to the "international level." or not playing on "the half-turn" or that he plays a different position for Seattle.
He's not "International Level"
I hate the term because it's meaningless by itself. If you want to say good enough to play for top 25 teams or one of the top 10-15 American players, just say that.
The most important international games the USMNT plays outside of the World Cup are against Concacaf teams full of guys who play in Central American leagues with a sprinkling of higher leaguers. Panama and El Salvador are captained by MLS players who play every minute for those teams. Canada runs out MLS players for huge minutes all over the field except at striker, Jonathan Osorio started 8 ocho games, Mark Anthony Kaye started 7. I don't think many MLS GMs would rather have Kaye or Osorio over Roldan. None of the 21 CSOs who answered the Athletic survey said so.
It's also not as though Roldan has only beat up on MLS teams, In the last 2 years he’s run roughshod over multiple good Liga MX teams. If you think Tigres and Leon are less talented or less organized than Jamaica or El Salvador, you and I are watching different sports. Even in MLS, If you think the CCL finalist LAFC team coached by Bob Bradley, a team that pressed Liga Mx teams off the field, is worse than Honduras or Panama, I can't help you.
It’s pretty clear that good MLS or Liga Mx players are toward the high end of the "international level" for the Ocho. games the USMNT needs to win.
Generic claims that he doesn't advance the ball or can't handle a pressing team don't hold up. FB ref has helpful MLS game logs that show that's simply not true.
If he were technically deficient to a disqualifying degree, it would have been exposed by his play in the center of the Seattle midfield. Not only does he play there but he's been a fixture in their playoff and cup games at 6/8 and always one of the highest touch players as the Sounders march on. His stats show him getting a lot of touches in the defensive third and middle third and completing a ton of passes under pressure, he's clearly a big part of how Seattle moves the ball through the midfield.
Either he's good enough to handle the job or his coaches and GM are too dumb to figure it out and get someone else in there. Over his run as the starter, he's had a series of midfield partners showing that Seattle is willing and able to make a change if they need to. His little brother got an audition and was rejected so badly as to be cut from the team.
The Half Turn
Roldan talk has made me think a lot of people are confusing the ability to dribble through players in a way that looks cool on highlights with playing "on the half turn." Playing on the half turn is about receiving the ball in a position to advance it with a single touch, Roldan does this very well.
He tends to play quick combinations at Seattle including a lot of long balls that lead to AVPs. I suppose Gregg could prefer slower buildup instead of bypassing defenders and obviously he is the guy who picks the players so his opinion matters.
As a philosophical question, what's the evidence that highlight dribbling far from goal adds much value? A lot of times the cool dribbling seems to come at the cost of a quick pass that advances the ball faster towards goal. Clearly, dribbling **close to goal** can be very valuable.
Makes me think of the American cliche about running QBs. "You run for yards and pass for miles."
He's a "system player."
This idea is interesting. I've been watching a lot Seattle to see if I can figure out what's "the system" that let's him thrive. It looks like Seattle is basically playing Red Bull/German ball where his relentless pressing and running and very good long passing are rewarded by his equally hard working/running teammates.
"The system" that makes him shine at Seattle is an experienced and well drilled team.He knows his mates and they know and trust him. There's no special protection for him,they just ball.
For Seattle, he's not waiting for the RB or the DM to play him when he's open.
This is his coach talking about him.
Press Conference: Brian Schmetzer post-match vs New York City FC From 12:54 to 13:30 his coach tells you what’s what.
Gregg is the coach and he picks the players.The fact that he doesn't choose to play Roldan doesn't damn him anymore than the fact that he was called up for every Ocho window makes him a better player.
I used to think it was about midfield dribbling or "changing the way the world sees American soccer" or something like that. The last 6 games of playing a clearly not-sharp Morris has left me to admit what we probably all should admit. "I don't know why Gregg won't play him."