SEATTLE – For Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, matchups against Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley are always somewhat surreal.
The two have become well acquainted in the past few years, as foes in the 2016 and 2017 MLS Cup Finals and as teammates on the US men’s national team.
Speaking to reporters before the third MLS Cup meeting between the clubs in four years, Roldan revealed that he used to have Bradley’s jersey as a kid growing up in Pico Rivera, Calif. The 24-year-old has also his USMNT opportunities alongside the veteran to pick his brain on the finite points of the defensive midfielder position that they each play.
“When we played them here this year, I was extremely motivated because that’s someone I really look up to, the way he carries himself,” Roldan said ahead of the MLS Cup Final on Sunday at CenturyLink Field (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada). “Now seeing it firsthand for a year-and-a-half, two years now – he’s the ultimate professional, a true leader, a true captain. Anytime I’m facing him, I want him to feel that I’m good enough to be on the same field as him.
"I’ve played alongside him and what a competitor he is. Anytime I get to have a conversation with him and learn and enjoy the moment I have with him is really a unique experience. I had his jersey growing up, so it’s going to be really fun to face him again.”
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There’s plenty of big-name attacking power on both sides that will get most of the headlines, but come Sunday, the roles of Bradley and Roldan in the defensive midfield could be as significant as any.
Bradley, 32, is still one of the league’s best midfield metronomes, able to control games with his combination of dogged defense and pinpoint passing. Roldan plays the role differently, possessing a relentless work rate and two-way skillset as a lockdown, ground-covering defender, and a legitimate goal-scoring threat in the attack.
Thinking back to the 2017 MLS Cup between the clubs that Toronto won 2-0 at BMO Field, Roldan said there are lessons learned from the matchup.
“I think in 2017, I thought [Toronto coach Greg] Vanney did a great job of altering the way they play, their tactics,” Roldan said. “They ended up playing in a 4-4-2 diamond and we couldn’t find too many answers. Tactically, I thought he was spot-on and made it very difficult for us to press, so you’ll see that in this game.
“[Seattle coach Brian] Schmetzer’s side, obviously, he gives us a lot of freedom to play, but you’ll see a bit of that in this game. Obviously, we’re going to be on the front foot being at home in front of our fans, but you’ll see a different Seattle than you’ve seen in the last two finals.”
While Roldan is thrilled to be on the first Sounders team to host the league’s showcase event at CenturyLink, his expectations for the team are even higher.
The Sounders, in spite of some erratic form, managed the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference in 2019. With Seattle’s overall talent, Roldan feels as though they should have been able to make a run at the Supporters’ Shield.
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“It’s been an up-and-down season for us,” he said. “I think if you talk to the players or the front office, to the coaches, I think a lot of guys weren’t pleased with how we did during the regular season. Although we finished second and narrowly got there, the fact that it was an up-and-down season and we didn’t compete for the Supporters’ Shield with the amount of talent that we have, I would have said that this was not the best year that we’ve had.”
And Roldan feels that standard should define each season.
“I think, [if] we don’t compete for the Supporters’ Shield with the amount of talent that we have, I think it’s a failure as an organization because we want to be there,” Roldan said. “We have that mentality and I think it’s ingrained in this culture within the club."