PHILADELPHIA — University of Washington won its first 2014 NCAA tournament match after a nine-round penalty shootout. Each of the Huskies’ first three shooters against Furman missed, including Cristian Roldan, who shot second.
A week later, Washington marched toward another shootout against Michigan State. This time, Roldan looked for coach Jamie Clark on the sideline to give him one simple message: “I’m taking the first one.”
“Sure enough, perfect penalty,” Clark told SI.com after the 2015 MLS SuperDraft on Thursday, in which Roldan was selected No. 16 overall. “He’ll find every opportunity he can to prove himself. … The best players, they want to be involved in those clutch moments.”
Roldan, a Generation adidas signing widely expected to be New York City FC’s No. 2 overall pick in the draft, fell to the middle of the first round before the Seattle Sounders sent a second-round selection and allocation money to Real Salt Lake to select Roldan 16th.
“It was hectic. My heart was racing. I didn’t know what to expect coming in,” Roldan said after being drafted. “You kind of weigh out your options, and you realize that the more you drop, the better team you’re going to be drafted to.”
Once again, the 19-year-old midfielder from Pico Rivera, California, faced a moment of adversity in his soccer career — but that’s nothing new.
Roldan played for Union Independiente instead of a brand-name U.S. Soccer Development Academy club team, differentiating himself in the increasingly irrelevant venue of high school soccer.
He scored 54 goals and 31 assists his senior year for El Rancho High School, earning Gatorade National Player of the Year honors in 2013. That followed a 21-goal, 21-assist junior year. His club team also made the semifinals of the prestigious Surf Cup tournament, and Clark scooped him up to play at Washington.
After a Pac-12 Freshman of the Year season, in which he surpassed United States national team newcomer Jordan Morris to win the award, Roldan turned down his first Generation adidas offer from MLS. He signed a week before the draft this year.
“Like it or not, I think hype gets in guys’ heads, and I mean that in a good and bad way,” Clark said. “This year, there was just so much noise around him — about how good he was and how good a pro he was going to be and how he was going to be the No. 2 pick in the draft. I think that fueled his fire that it’s time to go show that he is that good at the next level.”
In fact, Clark said Orlando City called him about possibly selecting Roldan first overall.
“I said, ‘He’s not the sexiest pick,’” Clark said, “but I think he might be the safest pick in the draft because he will refuse to be anything but successful. He’ll listen. He will learn.”
Roldan looked noticeably relieved and undoubtedly happy to be selected by Seattle.
He trained with the Sounders in the college offseason, and members of their technical staff frequently brave wet, cold Cascadia nights to watch local college teams.
“I think he’s the kind of guy who’s still going to grow and still going to get better,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said. “He’s just got to adjust to the speed of play a little bit, but he’s such a smart kid, and he’s a kid who is a student of the game. He’ll be able to do it.”
The son of a Salvadorian mother and Guatemalan father, Roldan was the second in his family to attend college after his older brother, César. (His younger brother, Alex, just completed his freshman year at Seattle University.) He’s shorter than many American pros, at 5-foot-8, but he makes up for it with his soccer IQ, work rate and fearlessness.
He also plays with an attitude befitting a player often overlooked.
“It’s an interesting combination between tough, smart and flair,” Clark said. “You get two of the three quite often — you don’t often get all three.”
Seattle’s familiarity with Roldan made him an intriguing option as he remained glued to his chair in the players’ area. When Real Salt Lake came up, the Sounders knew they had to act fast: RSL technical director Craig Waibel coached Roldan in college for a year.
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey negotiated his first trade in Seattle, with his old team no less, to land Roldan as one of the bargain picks in the draft.
“It was on our mind the whole time,” Schmid said of making the deal. “We thought RSL was maybe going to take him because Craig Waibel has history with him as well. For them, I think it came down to a situation of what we were offering was maybe more important to them than the player at that moment.”
Roldan’s best position is likely in a box-to-box midfield role, and he specifically mentioned Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda in his speech on stage at the draft as teammates on which he wants to model himself.
“Players like Ozzie Alonso are two-way players, and I think that’s where you make your money,” he told gathered media afterward. “I have intentions of playing attacking football, but I also am not afraid to get down and dirty and make some tackles.”
Schmid added: “He can play in the middle of midfield, but he can also play tucked in as an outside midfielder. The important thing with Cristian is that he’s got to be a guy you get the ball to.”
Roldan always seems to want the ball, whether he thinks somebody is watching or not, and Seattle is more familiar with his habits than any other MLS team. On a trip to scout facilities for a preseason trip in Southern California, Schmid said he went to look at one field in particular.
“I go to look at this one field, and they’re playing 6-v-6, and who’s playing? Cristian is out there playing,” Schmid said. “He’s the kind of kid, if there’s a soccer game, he’s going to play. Guys like that make it.”