Ahead of a make-or-break playoff game, one of Seattle's breakout stars reflected upon the motivating power of previous playoff defeats.
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Cristian Roldan has had a rough couple of postseasons.
His Washington Huskies were up two with 15 minutes left in their 2014 Sweet 16 match against Michigan State, only to give up a pair of late goals en route to a penalty shootout defeat.
Roldan came off the bench in the second leg of last year’s Western Conference semifinal against FC Dallas, playing out of position as an outside back. FCD’s talented wingers targeted Roldan mercilessly, and he lost his man on the stoppage-time corner kick that led to Dallas’ series-tying goal.
Even at the tail end of a breakout campaign, Roldan can still summon the sting of those previous setbacks. Ahead of another make-or-break playoff game – with the possibility of another shootout should Seattle and Colorado end the series tied at three aggregate goals apiece – the Sounders’ second-year midfielder reflected upon the moments that drive him.
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UW’s loss to the Spartans came just about a month or so before Roldan’s underwhelming performance at last winter’s MLS Combine. His SuperDraft stock plummeted, and a player originally projected in the top three free fell all the way to No. 16, where the Sounders traded up to snatch him up.
“It was a tough month-and-a-half,” Roldan says now. “But I’m very happy where I ended up. Sometimes it just goes your way. I took it as a positive and took it in stride. It was a tough couple of months, but you learn from it and you try to get better from it.”
That Huskies team might have been the very best in program history. With Roldan in the midfield and fellow Sounder Darwin Jones up top, UW was ranked No. 1 in the country at one point before losing momentum down the stretch.
The Michigan State game was their season in miniature. Washington dominated for 75 minutes before a defensive miscue handed the Spartans a lifeline, and the Huskies panicked.
“We let that game slip out of our hands,” Roldan said. “For me, for our team, I thought we had the most quality we ever had as a Huskies team. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t go any further. Sometimes I think about that moment.”
He feels similarly about the FC Dallas loss. His rookie season was often frustrating for Roldan. Just when he felt he was coming into his own last summer, the Sounders signed a pair of established European veterans in Andreas Ivanschitz and Erik Friberg that immediately leapfrogged him on the depth chart.
Roldan was desperate for another shot to prove his worth – and when it came, he looked out of his element and intimidated by the high stakes.
“The Dallas game last year was difficult for me to swallow,” Roldan said. “It was my first playoff series as a professional athlete, and it hits hard. It was a similar situation (to that UW loss): We were up and we let it slip through our hands.
“We don’t want to feel that feeling again.”
It’s thanks to Roldan that the Sounders are in such a promising spot ahead of Leg 2 of the Rapids series.
Colorado took an early lead on Tuesday at CenturyLink Field, and it is not a team that you want to chase from behind. The Rapids boast the best defense in MLS, and they’re built to sit back and protect a lead. It took Roldan all of six minutes to breach those touted defenses, carving Colorado up with a confident surge up the middle and a shot that bounced off the post for Jordan Morris to finish.
“It was all Cristian,” Morris said afterward. “He collected the ball and he took it 20-30 yards. … He created it.”
Perhaps even more impressively, Roldan completed more passes than any player on the field – more, even, than midfield partner Osvaldo Alonso, one of the most skilled distributors in MLS history.
“That was one of the key areas he needed to improve upon in his game,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We knew he was a competitive kid. He was going to fight to win. He has all the character traits we love.
“The last piece to that was just being a little cleaner and more consistent with his passing. (Tuesday) night was a good example of him actually gaining ground there.”
Added Sounders playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, whose words carry significant weight within this locker room: “Every single game he plays he keeps surprising me more. He’s a very important player.”
Roldan’s improvement from Year 1 to season two has been one of the pleasant surprises of this Sounders campaign. He has gone from a reliable depth guy into a legitimate building block for the club’s future.
There was a telling moment during the team’s training camp in Tucson back in February, when he was still getting used to his transition to full-time defensive midfielder instead of utility player. Roldan could see the incisive passes to teammates further up field but didn’t yet fully trust himself. He made safe plays instead, moving the ball from side to side instead of vertically.
That guy bore little resemblance to the swashbuckling midfielder who surged through the Rapids defense in what might be the defining moment of the series so far.
Roldan is no longer the player he was during the preseason – let alone the bewildered rookie of Dallas, or the Husky who could do little to prevent his team’s demise.
On Sunday afternoon, Roldan has another opportunity to showcase how far he’s come, and to play a leading role in punching a ticket to Seattle’s first-ever MLS Cup.