SEATTLE – Coming off an offseason in which he made the United States’ World Cup roster and signed a lucrative contract extension, this was promising to be a banner year for Cristian Roldan.
It started that way, too. During the season’s first seven games, Roldan was every bit as useful as the Seattle Sounders could have possibly hoped when they signed him to a five-year extension and made him one of the cornerstones of the team.
Roldan wasn’t necessarily putting up eye-popping numbers – just one goal and no assists – but it wasn’t hard to see how much he contributed to the Sounders’ 5-1-1 start. His unique skillset allowed him to extend the field with runs behind and still be useful in possession, while also providing some balance as a defender that was arguably the key element of the Sounders’ revamped tactical approach.
By now, it’s well documented what happened next but here’s a quick recap: Between two concussions and a call-up to the USMNT for the Gold Cup, Roldan has been available for just seven of the Sounders’ last 25 regular-season matches. It was only about two weeks ago that Roldan returned from the second concussion, but Wednesday’s match was probably the closest he’s looked to himself.
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It wasn’t just that Roldan logged 90 minutes for the second time in the span of a few days – an ironman quality that was once his calling card – it was how he looked during those minutes. Roldan was every bit the two-way player he has always been, winning 6 of 7 duels, getting into two tackles, and connecting 29 of 34 passes. Most satisfyingly, though, was his contribution to what turned out to be the winning play.
With the seconds ticking down on what looked to be yet another missed opportunity at home – this was the third time in four games at Lumen Field in which they’d surrendered a lead – Roldan and his brother converged on Raheem Edwards to win a throw-in. After a brief delay to make sure a previous play hadn’t been deserving of a penalty, Alex Roldan sent his throw into the box. Josh Atencio rose to get a clean flick into the center of the penalty area where Cristian Roldan met it with a perfectly executed volley. Roldan sprinted to the sideline, hand over his heart and letting out a primal scream that was surely months in the making.
“It was a long road to recovery,” Roldan said about his state of mind. “To be able to score in the last minute of a very important game, it was really emotional to contribute and help the team. I thought back to all the moments I just wanted to be in a dark room and not really worry about anything else other than sleeping.”
That it was Roldan who delivered the breakthrough moment was almost too fitting. When Roldan plays, the Sounders are now 7-1-6 (1.93 points per game). When he doesn’t, they are just 6-8-4 (1.22 PPG). By +/- of both goals and expected goals, he’s among the most influential players in the entire league.
Roldan had only played in one of the Sounders’ previous four home games – none of which they’d won – and he had watched the other three from the stands, unable to offer anything beyond words of encouragement.
That he’s now healthy and seemingly back to feeling himself couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
“This was a playoff game,” he said. “Just how it turned out, the intensity, the way they came back in the second half, the little chances both teams had. There wasn’t a lot. This was a great example of what the playoffs might look like. It was great to be on the winning side, but we need to do way better in every phase of the game and that’s part of the game we love.”
It was not a perfect performance by any stretch. The Sounders once again started strong – finding a goal through a Jordan Morris header in the 9th minute – and dominated the first half only to allow the Galaxy back into the game with a mostly flat second-half display.
But one thing they've been able to do throughout the year is grind enough to at least remain in games, to collect points even when they aren't necessarily at their best. As bad as this season has felt at times, this sort of gutsy performance has allowed them to never fall below fourth place in the Western Conference. All too often, though, it's also left them feeling as though a better result slipped through their grasp.
Roldan, it seems, could be the player who helps flip that script as the Sounders can turn their attention to positioning themselves for the playoffs after officially securing qualification with this win.
“We don’t always win, but they always put the effort in,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “They never quit.
“The first half was pretty good, maybe we should have had another goal,” Schmetzer continued. “The second half, whatever Greg [Vanney] said worked, whatever I said didn’t, they were better than us. But we found a way to win. That’s what’s important.”