Off the field, Cristian Roldan is the kind with whom everyone wants to be friends. On the field, people will soon seek to wear the same color uniform as the University of Washington product. The Sounders midfielder Saturday was the feisty soul of the Sounders and the sole scorer in a 1-0 rivalry victory over the Portland Timbers.
Roldan, 21, was all over the field for Seattle (4-5-4, 16 points) against its greatest foe, for the first time since winning the MLS Cup. The third-year player completed 89 percent of his passes and was credited with three tackles in a performance that saw Seattle outshot 19-8 in front of a crowd of 47,362.
Roldan’s greatest contribution came in the fourth minute, when he scored his first goal of the season with a header from a corner kick. Nicolas Lodeiro swung the ball into the box, where center back Chad Marshall redirected it with a flick of his head. The ball came straight at Roldan, who stood on the goal line blocking a defender. The ball bounced off his head and into the net.
The young central midfielder was quick to deflect credit for the score after the game.
“Chad is a monster in the air,” Roldan said. “He’s a competitor, I was able to follow what the coaches wanted me to do, and it’s all credit to them.”
On the field, Roldan was anything but deferential. He mixed it up in a physical match that saw 26 total fouls committed. Once, after tangling with Sebastian Blanco and drawing a free kick, Roldan jumped up and angrily squared off with Blanco.
The shift is a continuation of last week, when Roldan took on Real Salt Lake’s 20-year-old designated player Jefferson Savarino, recently arrived on loan from Zulia in his native Venezuala, by shouldering him off the ball in the box. Savarino went down, looking for a call, and play continued. As the ball rolled back up the field, Roldan turned to Savarino and thumped himself on the shoulder several times, as if to say, “Welcome to MLS.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer thinks Roldan is learning from teammate Osvaldo Alonso, nicknamed “Honey Badger” by Seattle fans for his ferocity on the pitch.
“I think it’s been hidden because nobody’s talked about it, since I always say he’s a nice kid, but he’s been playing next to (Alonso), one of the greatest holding midfielders in league history,” Schmetzer said, smiling. “I’m sure he’s taken a few cues with Ozzie over the years. As Cristian develops, he’s always searching for ways how to impact the game.
“Sometimes sending a message isn’t the worst thing in the world, since he knows he’s going to have to play here against them soon.”
Roldan echoed a similar sentiment.
“I like to think that I’m a calm guy off the field,” Roldan said. “But when I’m on the field when things aren’t going our way and we need an energy boost, it’s good to do. But you can’t get carried away. That’s what rivalry games are about. I try to show my emotions and get fans behind the game.”
For every impact Roldan had, the game dealt a wallop of its own. A ball Roldan intercepted with his head left him with a bloody nose, requiring a plug for his nostril with a cotton swab. And Dairon Asprilla committed a high-kick foul in the 90th minute that sent Roldan sprawling.
Even Marshall stepped on Roldan’s left forearm. Roldan laughed when asked if it may have been payback for taking Marshall’s goal, telling reporters they would have to ask the center back.
The laughs are coming easier for Seattle. They have two shutouts in a row, no small feat considering that Portland (5-5-3, 18 points) is tied for the conference lead with 22 goals in 13 games.
Roldan’s evolution as a pro, in front of goal and in other players’ faces, will pay dividends.
Schmetzer said the club is digging deep.
“It’s a group that’s full of pride,” Schmetzer said. “I reminded them again that they are the champions still. No one is taking that away from them. I think that mentality showed through. Earlier in the year, we played well, but we never got points. We might not have played our prettiest soccer the last couple of games, but they’ve figured out ways how to win.”
Schmetzer thanks fans for tifo
Before the match, supporters in the south end of CenturyLink Field unfurled a giant tifo that depicted Schmetzer, seated in a throne with the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup, the three major American soccer honors, at Schmetzer’s feet. The banner read, “The rightful king reclaims the throne.”
Schmetzer was so touched by the gesture that he opened his press conference with a rare statement before taking questions:
“I want to go on record and publicly thank the ECS tifo people for that wonderful photo of me prior to the match. It’s a little emotional now when I think about it. At the moment, I was still in game mode and I was surprised. When you take the time the reflect you get a few more emotions. It meant a lot, so thank you.”
Schmetzer said he had chills when the fans applauded the team as it walked out of the tunnel to face the Timbers at home for the first time, and thanked the home crowd.