When Cristian Roldan was 9, he starred in a FIFA World Cup commercial, showing off his ability to juggle a soccer ball. As a high-school senior, he was named Gatorade National Player of the Year after notching 54 goals and 31 assists in 32 games.
Yet for nine years between those brushes with fame, Roldan went largely unnoticed by college soccer programs.
How Roldan landed at Washington and earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors helps explain why the Huskies have jumped to the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA men’s soccer tournament that starts this week. Washington (14-1-4) will open the tournament Sunday at home against the winner of Thursday’s match between Creighton (9-8-2) and Seattle University (10-8-4).
“One year ago, I didn’t even know if I was going to play college soccer,” Roldan said. “And here I am.”
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His father, César, still finds the past year hard to believe. “You could make a movie out of this kid,” he said.
Washington coach Jamie Clark had never heard of Cristian Roldan when he traveled to scout the Surf College Cup in San Diego a year ago. Clark was just trying to fill the final spot in his recruiting class, and Roldan’s club happened to be playing.
Clark was so impressed that he thought Roldan must play for a U.S. national team development academy and be helping his hometown’s club for the weekend. But when the coach at nearby Saint Mary’s, who was also scouting the tournament, said he didn’t know Roldan, Clark was intrigued.
“It was full throttle from there,” Clark said, “because we knew we had found someone special.”
Why was Roldan ignored? First, he played for his high school and local club in Pico Rivera, Calif., rather than joining a prominent club or academy team that draws attention from college coaches. Second, he stands just 5 feet 8, though his size masks remarkable leaping ability and timing that has allowed him to score four of his six UW goals on headers.
He didn’t have a single offer before his senior year despite earning MVP honors for California’s Southern Section Division IV as a sophomore in 2011.
Roldan’s family was as perplexed as the UW coach.
“We knew he was good enough,” César said. “We were sending emails everywhere, and nobody would reply.”
Roldan didn’t become a hot recruit until May 20. Roldan, who was told he would be awarded the Gatorade State Player of the Year award, was giving a presentation in marine biology class when an unexpected visitor walked in. It was Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. men’s national team player.
Roldan knew he had been duped. Lalas was there to give him the Gatorade National Player of the Year trophy.
After that, coaches became interested, but they were too late. Roldan had chosen Washington.
Roldan, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection, tied for most goals on a Washington team that clinched the Pac-12 championship Sunday by beating Oregon State. Clark used the 18-year-old as an outside midfielder before moving him to the middle about a month ago. In his second match playing at center midfield, Roldan had a pair of goals and assists.
“His soccer IQ is above almost everyone’s on the team,” senior Michael Harris said. “He eats, sleeps and breathes soccer.”
He still has the jaw-dropping ball skills of that 9-year-old in the commercial and is willing to take on two or three defenders. But those close to Roldan say his work ethic and competitiveness set him apart.
“I think Cristian would get mad over a thumb war loss,” said UW assistant Craig Waibel.
Cristian competes most with his brother Alex, a senior at El Rancho High School and all-league selection last spring. He and Cristian turn everything they do into a contest.
The Roldans played club soccer together and might be teammates again next year. Alex made a recruiting visit to UW recently and likes what the school and Seattle have to offer, right down to the region’s “soccer weather.”
“I think he would be a good fit for the team,” Cristian said.
Washington would be smart to act fast with Alex. This time Clark isn’t the only coach who knows about a talented California midfielder named Roldan.