TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) Most times when the topic of young midfielder Cristian Roldan is brought up, Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer can’t stop raving.
From the time Roldan moved into the starting lineup for the Sounders, Schmetzer has seen the potential for Roldan to be an anchor in the middle of the field. And the U.S. national team is starting to take notice, too.
“He consistently puts in good performances,” Schmetzer said. “Not just physically, but tactically and technically he puts in really solid performances.”
Roldan will never have the big goal numbers like teammates Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris, but he’s among the players who have the Sounders on the cusp of a return to the MLS Cup final. Seattle takes a 2-0 lead into the second-leg of the Western Conference final against Houston on Thursday night. The Sounders would advance with a win, draw or even a one-goal loss.
Roldan has been the anchor for most of this year, the best of his three MLS seasons. The midfielder is worthy of consideration for the MLS Best XI and is among the options for a national team not likely to play a match of importance until 2019.
“I think it’s been positive. I still believe I have a ton to improve on and I never want to get settled on this season, on being decent,” Roldan said. “I want to get better. I want to get in to the national team consistently and next year is another year and I want to keep improving. I’ve been very happy with this year but never content and I think that’s a positive going forward.”
Roldan started 33 of 34 regular season matches this season and finished with six goals. He played the second-most minutes of anyone on Seattle’s roster.
Again, stats will never tell the full story with the Roldan. Not when his job is to be able to push forward to help the offensive attack, but sometimes race 70 or 80 yards back on defense to help shut down an offensive attack by the opposition.
It’s that ability to play both ways that drew the attention of the national team. Roldan was called up for the first time during the summer when the U.S. was playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and made his national team debut. But the more important call up came later in the summer when Roldan was part of the camp prior to World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras.
“To be in the second-to-last qualifiers where the U.S. is facing elimination for the World Cup, that’s a huge deal,” Roldan said. “Hopefully I can get to the point where I’m playing and starting every game, but to be in the running as my second call up that is big for my career going forward and I think it was big for this year as a confidence boost.”
Dempsey recalled being in a similar situation as Roldan early in his career and getting that first national team call up was a huge influence on the development of his career.
“I would say confidence is a huge thing, being able to know he can play at that level. The more experience you get playing in games, playing in big games you get that confidence and also you improve,” Dempsey said. “He keeps working on his skills, keeps working on his game, looking at tape, trying to figure out ways to better himself and when you’re hungry and you work hard, you’re only going to get better. He has to keep pushing and doing what he’s doing and that’s kind of what I had to do.”
With that in mind, ProSoccerTalk called its writers together to lay out their thoughts on this playoffs and the MLS postseason in general.
The four best regular season teams in Major League Soccer will have had a week to stare at the zeroes next to their names after conference semifinal first legs. Who has the best chance to flip their fate on its ear?
Andy Edwards: “The Red Bulls managed to do what neither Dallas nor NYCFC could in the first leg: damage limitation. To only give up one goal — on two shots on target — in a game where Montreal would have been desperate for two or three, was mission accomplished. No one scored more goals at home than the Red Bulls this season, which means they’ve got L’Impact right where they want them.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “I have a feeling that the New York Red Bulls are the most likely to overcome the deficit. Aside from a wonder strike from Matteo Mancuso at Stade Saputo, there wasn’t much in the game. Jesse Marsch’s side had an off day. Don’t expect them to have another one. Elsewhere I expect Seattle to get through against Dallas and LA to get past Colorado, but I have a sneaky feeling New York City FC will make it very interesting against Toronto. Because, Toronto.”
Matt Reed: “Outside of the Sounders-FC Dallas fixture it’s hard to say that any of the other matchups are over and done with. That said, I think the New York Red Bulls have the best chance to overcome their deficit. The Impact weren’t dominant in the opening leg and the Red Bulls are a significantly better home side than they are on the road (13-2-2 at Red Bull Arena). With Jesse Marsch’s side potentially only needing a goal to send things to extra time I believe Bradley Wright-Phillips and co. are more than capable of handling their business.”
Kyle Bonn: “Has to be RBNY. Not only is their deficit just a one-goal differential from a first leg on the road (they were a questionable road team at best during the year), but they have been stellar at home. They were 13-2-2 at home this regular season, and they beat Montreal twice at home in the recent past by a combined score of 4-1. I don’t see any other result but the Red Bulls advancing.”
Nick Mendola: “I’ll take a differing angle, solely to be different. The Colorado Rapids have shown a keen ability to keep a clean sheet, and Tim Howard nearly blanked the Galaxy last week. The Rapids went unbeaten at home this season, with 11 wins in 17 matches, and Jermaine Jones is finally back. It may take extra time and kicks, but I’ll take Howard over Brian Rowe every day.”
What’s the best active storyline in these MLS Cup Playoffs?
Andy Edwards: “While the Sounders with Brian Schmetzer and Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are the obvious answer, I’m giddy about the current form of one Josmer Volmy Altidore in Toronto. When was the last time the U.S. national team had a single striker scoring the way Altidore, Morris and Bobby Wood are doing, let alone three at the same time? Sebastian Giovinco gets most of the plaudits (rightly so) in Toronto, but the difference with and without Altidore on the field is clear as day. The link-up play between the two is strangely perfect, and might be enough to take the Reds all the way to the Cup.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “I don’t want to single out a player but I think the way the Seattle Sounders have turned things around is remarkable. Sigi Schmid will always be a legend in Seattle and in MLS but he will always be remembered in the Emerald City for not being able to deliver the elusive MLS Cup. If Seattle somehow go on to win MLS Cup this year under Brian Schmetzer, who was interim boss up until this week when the Sounders made it permanent, it would be bizarre. I think with the streak they’re on to finish the season, Seattle can go all the way to MLS Cup.”
Kyle Bonn: “I agree with Joe that a big storyline is Seattle’s turnaround, but to me the biggest is Toronto’s rise. Having made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year but suffering a disappointing early exit, this year they’re primed to eliminate NYCFC. On an individual level, Sebastian Giovinco will feel slighted after being left off both the Italian squad recently, as well as the MVP list released a few days ago. Can he prove everyone wrong with a big playoff push?”
Matt Reed: “As much as Brian Schmetzer’s miraculous run with the Sounders will gain plenty of headlines (and deservingly so), I think what Patrick Vieira has done with New York City FC is quite impressive. Yes, it’s a star-driven squad, but the former Arsenal midfielder has done well implementing a system and sticking to it even though his personnel doesn’t necessarily always allow them to succeed. It’ll be a tough task overcoming Toronto down two goals, but David Villa has had plenty of magic in his two-plus seasons with NYCFC. It’s hard to count him and this side out.”
Nick Mendola: “It was treble-chasing FC Dallas, but their 3-0 deficit to Seattle makes that a lot less sexy. As mentioned above, Toronto and Seattle are great selections. But it comes down to two teams now, in terms of storylines: The Red Bulls still haven’t won an MLS Cup and are running the risk of falling behind NYCFC in the latter’s second season downstate (or in New Jersey). Yet as much as I hate to say it, as long as Landon Donovan is playing close to 90 minutes per game for the LA Galaxy after coming out of retirement, he would be the No. 1 draw of any storyline for fans in the U.S.
Speaking of the playoffs here in Year Ten, what are you feeling about the way the MLS structures its postseason? Do you have significant qualms?
Joe Prince-Wright: “Bit in between to be honest. I’d actually like to see the playoffs eradicated, just for one season, and see how it was received. With the increased number of teams in the league over the next two seasons, you could just have an extra four or so regular season games. I know the playoffs always create buzz and excitement but to me there still seems something far too hollow about the Supporters’ Shield. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Kyle Bonn: “I like it a lot. Sure, the regular season is somewhat diminished by the playoffs, but it’s like that in any sport. There is a sacrifice of sporting fairness in exchange for excitement and big moments. It works the same in Major League baseball, where a 162-game season can come crumbling down in 7 games.”
Nick Mendola: “I enjoy the playoffs while they are going, but I’d like to see one-off home games if we’re going full-blown American structure. Yes, teams get a break if home-field advantage comes their way, but playing one more match in a 10-day span is hardly an advantage after 34 matches worth of grinding for position.”
Andy Edwards: “Of all the gripes I have about the MLS Cup Playoffs, that they play home and away in the conference semifinals and finals is the biggest (that they don’t even give the higher-seeded side their choice of which leg to host is even worse). When they put the higher-seeded team on the road in the first leg, where you choose between playing for a 0-0 draw, or opening yourself up to an onslaught by coming out and attacking, I find myself wondering, ‘Why did we even play eight months of the regular season?’ In a perfect world, every round is single elimination. If after 90 minutes the game is tied, put the team that performed better over 34 games into the next round. There’s money to be made in these here playoffs, though, which is why it’ll never happen.”
Matt Reed: “I’m not a huge fan of a playoff system in general but given the way things are set up with two separate conferences it seems pretty good the way things are. Just like I’m not a huge proponent of away goals being a tiebreaker in Europe, I feel the same way about its use in MLS, so I suppose that would be the biggest change I’d make to the current system.”
Would you rather your team won the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup?
Matt Reed: “Just like any other league, you want to be considered the best team at the end of the season. The Supporters’ Shield is certainly nothing to cast aspersions on but at the end of the day MLS Cup is the ultimate prize for any team.”
Andy Edwards: “Until the regular-season schedule is balanced (i.e., not playing some intra-conference teams twice, while playing others three times), the Supporters’ Shield, by definition, is a tilted competition at best, and rigged at worst. For that reason, even though I would like to see more value placed upon the regular season, it’s always going to be about MLS Cup.”
Joe Prince-Wright: “You want your team to win the highest possible honor possible which right now is MLS Cup, but if you win the Supporters’ Shield then you’re a damn good team (looking at you, FC Dallas). In the current format the regular season champ doesn’t get enough respect. So, MLS Cup is better.”
Kyle Bonn: “Absolutely the MLS Cup. The Supporter’s Shield probably recognizes the best overall team, which says a lot, but it’s not the league championship. I want the title.”
Nick Mendola: “You can’t manufacture hype and passion, and it’s clear the MLS world respects the Cup more than the Shield. So while I love the Shield accomplishment far more, I have to tip my hat to the majority… for now.”
All Brian Schmetzer did in 2016 was to rescue what was quickly becoming a lost season for the Seattle Sounders, take them to the MLS Cup Playoffs, on to the brink of the Western Conference finals, and land himself the permanent head-coaching gig before season’s end.
After being Schmetzer named interim coach on July 26, Schmetzer guided the Sounders to a record of 8W-4D-2L down the stretch of the regular season in order to qualify for the playoffs, at which point they eliminated Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round, and hold a commanding 3-0 lead on Supporters’ Shield-winning FC Dallas in the conference semifinals. The widely-held thought was that Schmetzer would have to take the Sounders to MLS Cup to land the permanent gig, but sound logic prevailed in the end.
“I want to thank Seattle Sounders FC for the opportunity to lead this club over the past eight years, with particular gratitude to Adrian Hanauer, Joe Roth and the rest of the club’s ownership group. I’d also like to thank my coaches and technical staff for the support they’ve given me, and most importantly I want to thank my players for their tremendous effort throughout the years,” Schmid said.
“I’m proud of the success we’ve achieved in winning five major trophies in Seattle, qualifying for the postseason for seven-straight seasons. My only disappointment is that we were unable to bring home an MLS Cup to our tremendous fans, who have always been supportive through good times and bad. In closing, I want to thank the Sounders FC organization, the club’s fans and the city of Seattle for this amazing run.”
Longtime assistant Brian Schmetzer takes over in the interim, tasked with finding a way to improve on the uninspiring Sounders’ 6-12-2 record.
The Sounders are 10 points out of the final playoff spot and haven’t won since June 22 (2L-4T). They’ve scored the third-fewest goals in MLS. Without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, the players’ performances over the last few weeks raised serious character concerns. Hopefully a coaching change somehow eases those, as it did for Chelsea.