University of Washington coach Jamie Clark is only surprised that it’s taken everybody else so long to see what he sees in the second-year Sounders midfielder.

Share story

Jamie Clark is only surprised that it’s taken everybody else so long to see what he sees in Cristian Roldan.

The men’s soccer coach at the University of Washington shook his head at the national broadcast of the Sounders’ 3-1 win over Portland last Sunday, bemused at the announcers’ bemusement of Roldan’s timely leap that led to his goal off a corner kick.

“Little do they know that he’s the best header for a small guy in the entire league,” Clark said. “That’s one of the first things we ever noticed about him. He was a volleyball player growing up. That was always his thing.”

Roldan’s outsized hops for a player generously listed at 5-foot-8 aren’t the only thing causing jolts of recognition throughout MLS.

The second-year player out of UW has been one of the key figures credited with Seattle’s three-game win streak. Roldan has flourished in interim coach Brian Schmetzer’s reworked formation and locked down a spot in the starting lineup. He’s attracting the interest of multiple national teams and belatedly earning nods as one of the most intriguing young talents in the league.

The way his college coach sees it, widespread plaudits are overdue – and Roldan’s ongoing breakthrough might just be the beginning.

Roldan’s soccer career has followed this well-worn path from the start.

Though he was the prep Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2013, Roldan was lightly recruited out of El Rancho High in Southern California until Clark spotted him during an off-the-beaten-path scouting trip his senior year. Roldan was all-Pac-12 during both his seasons with the Huskies but fell all the way to the Sounders at No. 16 during last year’s SuperDraft.

Roldan’s experience within the U.S. youth national team setup is instructive as to why he’s been overlooked time and time again. When Roldan was called into Tab Ramos’ under-20 USMNT camp a few years ago, Clark says he was given somewhat baffling feedback.

“Tab tried to say that he was unfit,” Clark said. “No one who knows Cristian would say that. He’s got a thick, strong body. That kid wouldn’t let himself be unfit.”

Clark got wind of similar gripes at the MLS Combine. Roldan doesn’t have the prototypical build of either a hulking destroyer or lithe creator.

“Maybe that’s why people don’t immediately grab onto him, because he doesn’t have this Paul Pogba body-type that’s long and smooth,” Clark said. “He’s a little tank.”

Roldan’s game is also unconventional. If Erik Friberg is more of a pure passer and Osvaldo Alonso the box-to-box complete midfielder, Roldan is somewhere in the middle. The Guardian recap of the Timbers game described him as a “space occupier,” which would be a bland nickname but hits on his essential function.

Roldan provides a similar role to the one Alejandro Bedoya plays for the U.S. national team – always in the right place at the right time, filling opponents’ passing lanes while providing teammates with a ready outlet.

In recent matches, though, he has been branching out.

Installed next to Alonso as the second line in Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1, Roldan’s full-time position has been deeper, but he’s also been much more aggressive in pushing forward. He credits Schmetzer for providing both clearly defined roles and the freedom to defy them when the moment is right. Roldan is finally being allowed to settle after a season-and-a-half of plugging holes all over the field.

“I don’t think anybody has even seen it yet,” Clark said. “But at some point in the next year, when he becomes an even older guy, you’re going to see someone who beats guys off the dribble and takes more chances, too. Now, he still defers. And he should because there are great players around him.

“But somewhere along the line, people will be like, ‘Whoa, there’s even more to him.’ Because there is.”

That would be an encouraging development for Seattle, which already considered him one of its long-term building blocks even prior to his recent run of standout performances. What it means for his future on the international level is less certain.

Born in Southern California, Roldan is also eligible to play for Guatemala through his father and El Salvador through his mother. Though he has confirmed recent contact from the former and lingering interest from the latter, Roldan has yet to hear from USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

The player is adamant that he’s keeping his options open, that he’s focusing all of his attention on his club. But someone, somewhere is clearly taking notice – and Klinsmann would be far from the first one to see too late what Clark has seen for years.

“He’s not the Ronaldos or the Messis, the guys that, if you did miss, you’re kicking yourself for 10 years,” Clark said. “But he’s a winner, and he’s a great player. He can be part of the (national team).

“In terms of his mental strength, his drive, confidence and belief, he is special. He just doesn’t have peaks and valleys. He grinds every day. Guys like that keep getting better.”