TUKWILA — Much of Cristian Roldan’s MLS career has been defined by his durability. Being a physical player, he’s endured plenty of bumps and bruises — and even played several games with a cast after breaking his arm in 2017 — but he’d never experienced an extended injury-related absence.
That changed last month when the pain he felt after suffering an athletic pubalgia had gotten so bad that he had little choice but to undergo midseason surgery. Although the surgery cost him six games — during which the Sounders went 2-3-1 — he’s now back and feeling as good as ever.
Roldan returned slightly ahead of schedule, playing 40 minutes against FC Cincinnati on Tuesday and helping the Sounders salvage a 1-1 tie to keep their faint playoff hopes alive. The midfielder showed some rust early on, but completed 28 of 31 passes and nearly scored a go-ahead goal on a flying header that went just wide.
“I worked hard, I worked really hard,” Roldan told reporters following Thursday’s training session. “Our staff did a really good job of preparing me for games.
“There were a bunch of ups and downs. You have good and bad days. Days where you don’t even feel like you want to be in because you feel terrible and others where you’re on Cloud 9 because you feel so great. You get humbled so fast.”
Simply playing pain-free was an achievement unto itself.
Roldan said he first felt a pop on the inside of his leg during a match against Nashville SC on July 13. He then played with varying degrees of discomfort and pain that he said limited him to about 85% of his normal top speed and sometimes made just kicking a ball with full force a significant challenge. Despite that, he wanted to keep playing until a match against Real Salt Lake on Aug. 14 when he felt another pop on the opposite side that forced him to leave the match in the 76th minute, his earliest exit of the season.
The following week, the pain was so intense that Roldan couldn’t even train, prompting him to finally see a specialist. It was recommended that he have surgery to repair the damage. The downside? He’d miss at least 4-6 weeks. The upside? He would be able to return in time for the Sounders’ last few games and bolster his effort to make the United States World Cup roster.
“I was in a miserable state, I’ll be honest,” Roldan said. “It was a difficult decision, but I’m glad I made it because I came back fast and am feeling great. Hopefully, we can make a push for the playoffs and I can get up to speed very very quickly.”
Athletic pubalgias — commonly referred to as sports hernias — are relatively common among athletes and can often be treated through rest. Roldan was limited in training but was never able to fully shake the injury, which seemed to show up in his stats.
It was becoming obvious to Roldan that he might actually be doing both he and his teammates a disservice by playing through the pain. After starting the season on fire, scoring four goals and adding 10 assists across all competitions while leading the Sounders to the Concacaf Champions League title, Roldan’s production dropped off significantly. In the seven games he played after first feeling the injury, Roldan had just one goal, no assists and didn’t even attempt a shot in four games. The Sounders also went 2-5-0 in those games, a stretch largely responsible for their current predicament.
“You always want to help the team, but to a certain extent where you’re tearing your body apart and you’re not doing yourself or your team any favors,” he said. “I definitely noticed a drop in performances and was difficult to hold myself accountable when it’s hard to play at 100 percent.”
Even if it proves too late to push the Sounders into a 14th consecutive MLS postseason, Roldan is also hoping to get himself fit in time to make a push for the United States World Cup roster. U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter has consistently called up Roldan, who seems to have at least an outside chance of booking a spot in Qatar. The only way that was going to happen was if Roldan was not just playing games but also fit enough to raise the level in training, arguably the biggest reason he might be included.
“I understand my role with the national team,” said Roldan, alluding to the fact that nine of his past 10 USMNT appearances have been off the bench. “I might not play 90 minutes, but if I can keep the level of training sessions and be ready when my name is called upon, that’s the kind of role I have there. If I’m not 100 percent, he might as well not take me.”
In light of the United States’ listless performances against Japan (a 2-0 loss) and Saudi Arabia (a 0-0 tie) during this past window, it’s been observed that they might have missed someone like Roldan to raise the level of competition in training.
Roldan, ever the cheerleader, remained confident about the USMNT’s prospects in Qatar.
“It was a difficult camp,” Roldan said. “It’s OK to be honest at times. But the foundation is set. There’s more positive than negative going into the World Cup. Being part of a national team where the average age is 23 and we’re the youngest squad going in, there’s always going to be nerves, always be butterflies.
“The good thing about our team is you have a bad game like that and the young guys are still fearless going into the next game. That’s the positive that we’ll get out of the squad we have. They’re going to be fearless and confident going into the World Cup.”