TUKWILA — Back when Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid was building UCLA into a college soccer powerhouse, he took pride not in landing the best recruits in the country, but rather in finding the overlooked player who had yet to make a name for himself, but who someday would.
Before they were U.S. national team standouts, Cobi Jones and Carlos Bocanegra were unheralded players on Schmid’s UCLA teams; they were, as Schmid likes to describe it, hungry.
Which brings us to Sounders rookie Cristian Roldan, the 19-year-old midfielder from the University of Washington who made his first MLS start in last weekend’s scoreless tie at Dallas.
Roldan, who is from Southern California, wasn’t highly recruited by many big programs, including nearby UCLA, and instead came north to Washington. He established himself as one of the country’s top players during two seasons with the Huskies, but consistent with his career path, the player who was considered by most to be a top-3 pick instead slid in the MLS SuperDraft. Eventually Seattle traded up as Roldan continued to fall, and snagged the UW product with the 16th overall pick.
“I didn’t know what college I was going to end up at, and I ended up at a very good place, and I’ve ended up in a very good place now,” said Roldan, who appeared as a late-game substitute in Seattle’s first two games before starting the friendly against Club Tijuana, as well as last weekend’s game in Dallas. “I was overlooked a lot, but that just drives me to try to be better than anyone else.”
Schmid and the Sounders have been familiar with Roldan for a couple of years, having invited him to train with the team during Washington’s offseason, and in Roldan, who unlike many top young college and MLS players has no experience with various youth U.S. national teams, Schmid saw some of the same traits he liked in those “hungry” players who helped him win championships at UCLA.
“I just liked the way he competed,” Schmid said. “He’s a kid who always competed in the big games that the UW played. … He scored goals in big games, got assists in big games.
“I like his story. When I was coaching at UCLA, one of the things for me was, can you find players — not recruit guys off the Under-20 national team and the Under-17s, because everybody knows who they are — but can you find other guys?’ Joe-Max Moore, Mike Lapper, Cobi Jones, Carlos Bocanegra…they were hungry, and I think Cristian when he came to UW was hungry. He wasn’t on UCLA’s top recruit list, because he wasn’t on the Under-17 national team. When he came here, he was hungry and trying to prove it, and I like players who are hungry.”
When it comes to evaluating Roldan’s play, it’s clear that Schmid has seen things he likes, but that he is also careful not to hype the rookie up too much just yet. And as even Roldan himself can admit, part of the reason he is playing is because of injuries and national team call-ups hurting Seattle’s midfield depth. But that still doesn’t take away from the fact that, at 19, he is already part of Seattle’s present, and not just a player the Sounders hope is in their future.
With Seattle expected to be back at full strength, or close to it, it could be a little while before Roldan starts another MLS game, or perhaps even appears in one. But with a busy summer of CONCACAF Champions league and U.S. Open Cup games coming up, Seattle’s depth will be tested again, and the experience gained by young players like Roldan, Michael Azira, Aaron Kovar, and rookies Victor Mansaray and Oniel Fisher, who both made their Sounders debuts last week, will pay dividends in the future.
“We’ll need that later in the season,” Sounders captain Brad Evans said. “…It’s going to be a mixed group most of the season, so it’s good for guys to get their feet wet early and not be shell-shocked when the middle of the season comes along.”
Roldan’s early success with the Sounders could get him noticed outside of Seattle, perhaps in the future by the Under-20 or later Under-23 national teams, but so far he’s content to stay hungry.
“Nothing at all,” Roldan said when asked if he’s heard anything from U.S. Soccer. “I’d hope to, but obviously I won’t be bummed if they don’t because like I’ve said, I’ve been looked down upon, and that’s only going to make me better.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org