Standing at just 173cm or 5 feet 9 inches, Cristian Roldan is not the typical build of a holding midfielder. For a league as physical and aggressive as Major League Soccer, he’s had his fair share of critics. However, having collected two MLS Championship Cups and 19 appearances for the USMNT, he has sufficiently proven his worth and quality.
Capping off the 2019 campaign with his 2nd MLS Cup, Roldan has secured a place among the top holding midfielders in the league. His ability to read and anticipate a football match both offensively and defensively have played a critical role in his rise to the top. This scout report will explain Roldan’s role within the tactics of the Seattle Sounders. Additionally, the goal of this tactical analysis is to highlight his incredible engine, ability to read the game and long-range passing.
When investigating central midfielders in the MLS, Roldan is in the top four players for the average number of progressive passes per 90 minutes.
At nearly 10 progressive passes per match, Roldan sits fourth among his MLS counterparts for central midfielders. Upon further analysis, he actually averages 19.4m per pass which also places him in the top five when looking at average progressive pass length in the above group. An important influencing factor to consider for this stat is the style of play a team utilises. For instance, in Roldan’s case, Seattle often plays a more direct and counter-attacking style of football which regularly places him in positions to play those longer and more direct passes. However, it is also important to remember the accuracy of these long-range progressive passes is less influenced by such factors. Therefore, the accuracy of these passes, in particular, are much better indicators of the quality of the player striking the ball.
Not unexpected, one of Roldan’s top areas of quality is his accuracy in long progressive passes. Which is easily illustrated through his progressive passing distance statistics.
While it is true his progressive passing accuracy for distances under 20m leaves space for improvement. There is no debating his consistency in striking both a high quantity and quality of long-range progressive passes over 20m. In total, Roldan passed over 20m, 168 times and was accurate on 148 of those passes, putting him at a remarkable 88% for any progressive pass over 20m. That’s a truly impressive statistic which is regularly on display when he steps on the pitch.
Roldan was able to showcase this ability in the 2019 Western Conference Semifinal versus Real Salt Lake. In this sequence, Roldan has intercepted a pass and finds himself in a tight space surrounded by three Salt Lake players. His ability to pick his head up early and look to play forward allows him to find his outlet away from pressure.
Recognizing the available space ahead of him, Seattle Sounder’s centre forward Raúl Ruidíaz checks between the two defenders for Salt Lake. His timing, combined with a well-weighted pass from Roldan, allows them to secure the ball. Which in turn allows them to build in possession. All stemming from Roldan’s ability to play a precise progressive long-range pass under pressure with his non-preferred left foot. Roldan’s ability to strike these passes accurately has been massive in the Sounder’s success since he joined the club.
The fundamental role of a holding midfielder is to help the team defend. This is a role in which Roldan excels. However, at times his ability to do so can go unnoticed as it is not a particularly glamorous part of the job. Still, his ability to cut out passing lanes to players, recognize when he needs to drop into the backline, and provide cover for his teammates is critical for the Sounder’s to be successful. Ultimately, these all come down to his ability to read and flat out run for 90 plus minutes per match. His football IQ coupled with his engine which never seems to quit are often the difference-maker for Seattle in tight matches. Still, perhaps the best example of his defensive abilities occurred in the 2019 MLS Cup final where he battled in the central midfield with USMNT teammate Michael Bradley, formerly of Roma and the Serie A.
In this sequence, Seattle have lost possession with 7 players committed forward. Roldan being well-positioned and sitting just behind is in a great position to prevent an immediate counter. By sitting in the space and slowly stepping towards the ball as he is able to read the play. Here he opts to step towards the ball without diving in and changes his body position to show the ball towards the side-line. The result is cutting off the passes to either Toronto FC player to the right of the ball. In doing so he delays the start of this counterattack, which allows his teammates to recover and get organized behind the ball. Roldan’s ability to recognise and prevent this 1v3 counterattack is just one example of him utilising his defensive positioning to help his team.
In this above sequence, Roldan recognises Toronto have a 2v1 advantage in their right channel. As a result, he sprints over to provide cover for EPL loanee left-back Brad Smith to create a better 2v2 matchup. With Roldan’s cover to the inside, Smith is allowed to release the mark the overlapping Toronto FC player. The action allows the Sounders to remain marked on both players. If Roldan hadn’t recognised the situation and left Smith alone this sequence would have likely ended with a goal or at least quality chance for Toronto. This is important as Roldan regularly provides the cover in these situations. It can not be overstated how important these supporting defensive movements are to the Sounders success defensively.
Often times Roldan’s ability to be in the right spot defensively also pays dividends in Seattle’s ability to hit on the counter. Regardless of where he is on the pitch when he receives the ball, his teammates are always looking to go forward. This combined with his precision when passing at longer distances is what makes him vital to this Sounder’s attacking style.
In this example, Seattle has just intercepted the ball from Toronto. Joevin Jones passes to Roldan who is in a great spot between the Toronto midfield and forward lines. As the ball travels, Roldan is able to see his teammate, Uruguayan International Nicolás Lodeiro, running in behind the Toronto left-back. Seeing this, Roldan plays a brilliant 20m pass up over the top and into the space for Lodeiro running full speed towards Toronto’s goal. Lodeiro is then able to play a brilliant pass to centre forward Ruidíaz who is 1v1 but unable to score. Here we see all the qualities of Roldan in one sequence. He is in the right position to receive the ball. He has a quick shoulder check to see where space is to play forward. Lastly, he utilises a long-range pass in behind a Toronto left-back who has stepped too high to defend. This is a classic Sounders sequence with Roldan at the wheel. His long-range passing has proven to be effective and critical in their ability to transition quickly from defence to attack.
Like any other player, Roldan does have a flaw. His short-range passing leaves much to be desired especially in a role where short passes are utilised regularly. At just 66% for progressive passes from 0-20m, this is certainly a place where he needs to improve. Still, it is important to take into account the style in which Seattle play. Looking to counter regularly and exploit space in behind defences is a bit more their style. Therefore, often times when Roldan receives the ball, he lacks supporting options around him and at times struggles to find a pass out of pressure. Ultimately though, with 19 appearances for the USMNT if he wants to continue especially with Gregg Berhalter as the head coach that stat will have to improve.
Cristian Roldan is a quality holding midfielder. In a time where players seem to relish on less of the dirty bits and amount of work required, he doesn’t. His engine, defensive positioning, and quality of passing the ball at longer distances can not be overstated. There’s no doubt he has the quality to become the top holding midfielder in Major League Soccer and is certainly a player on the rise. For a player with high personal ambitions, the next step for him could be an adventure out of the MLS. Following in the footsteps of previous top young central midfielders like Tyler Adams formerly of New York Red Bulls and now in the Bundesliga at RB Leipzig. Whether he wants to or not doesn’t particularly matter, to develop further that may be the best option.
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