National Writer: Charles Boehm

How Alex Roldan finally caught up to his big brother Cristian in Seattle

Alex Roldan is accustomed to his older brother, Cristian Roldan, getting top billing.

In retrospect, you might say fate earmarked Cristian, the middle of the three Roldan brothers, for soccer greatness.

His juggling skills, at age 9, earned him a starring role in a memorable adidas commercial. He later won the 2013 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year award for his exploits at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, California, where he racked up an eye-watering 54 goals and 31 assists as a senior. He’s gone on to carve out an exemplary pro career with two MLS Cup titles and counting for the Seattle Sounders and regular call-ups to the US men’s national team.

Younger by a year, Alex has been chasing him for as long as he can remember.

“I've always been, I don't want to say in the shadows, but I've always been competing with him in everything that we've done. Sports, school, trying to win over my parents,” Alex told this week as the siblings sat for a video interview in the house they share in Seattle.

“We always joke around that I say that my parents love Cristian more. They always come back and say, 'No, we love you guys equally.' But there's just always been that type of relationship, and I think that's the best thing that could have ever happened to me, because it's always me measuring myself against him. And he's been a successful person in life, so I think it's a pretty good person to compare myself to and to always try to one-up.”

It’s not hard to detect an undercurrent of relentless, if not loving, competitiveness between the brothers, who have confessed to a fairly fiery relationship in childhood before a more harmonious bond grew as adults.

Soccer first brought Cristian to Puget Sound to play college ball for the University of Washington, and Alex soon followed to join their crosstown rivals Seattle University. While Alex was a highly productive midfielder for the Redhawks, Cristian stayed a length or two ahead, leaving school early to sign a Generation adidas contract in 2015 and steadily climbing into the Sounders lineup, where he’s remained ever since.

Alex’s pro prospects were cloudier.

“We've always been close. We've competed against each other in every aspect, whether it's video games, whether it's basketball, playing soccer. We never would have thought that we'd be on a professional team together,” said Cristian. “I think the coolest story for us was in college when we played against each other, and we thought that was probably our peak.”

A reserve midfielder in his first two MLS seasons, Alex saw the club decline his contract option a matter of days after their 2019 MLS Cup triumph, cutting him loose one year after re-signing Cristian to a five-year, guaranteed, multi-million-dollar deal.

It was a painful setback for both of them. And while many in his position would have searched for a fresh start somewhere new, Alex felt his only real option was to stick around and prove himself to Brian Schmetzer & Co. all over again.

“That's the thing with this league – if you don't play as much minutes, you don't get exposed to those scouts, those teams, and that's the frustrating part,” he recalled. “You're not able to showcase your potential and then when you do get those minutes, it's still difficult because it's so limited.

“I can't tell you how many times I've complained to this guy about certain things I've been frustrated about,” he added with a nod to his brother. “And he's just told me the same thing – you’ve just got to do your time, basically.”

Now the tables have finally turned, most evocatively in a visit to the San Jose Earthquakes last week. For an hour or so, it appeared that Cristian would grab the headlines for his viciously-struck half-volley that rocketed past Quakes goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski in the 18th minute.

But a late injury to netminder Stefan Frei forced the Sounders to throw a field player into goal for the game’s final minutes. First Cristian was tabbed for the task, before the elder Roldan convinced coach Brian Schmetzer to hand the gloves to his brother.

“Alex has always been better with his hands,” explained Cristian.

Indeed, he handled the unfamiliar job with aplomb, making three saves to preserve the clean sheet and 1-0 win in the face of some heavy Quakes pressure. Alex became the first field player to play goalkeeper in SSFC’s MLS history and just the 12th such case in league history.

“I had scored in that game, but obviously Alex’s heroics stole the limelight, which is great,” said Cristian of the wild midweek win for the league-leading Sounders.

“I wouldn't say I stole the limelight,” Alex shot back, and to be fair, they shared the club's official man of the match honor. As it turns out, this was pretty much an ideal scenario for their parents, Cesar and Ana, who split up the postgame communications duties.

“My dad literally texted the video of my goal to every single one of his contacts on his phone,” related Cristian. “And Alex got a couple of calls from my mom and my brother, because my older brother [Cesar, who works in MLS as the head athletic trainer for the LA Galaxy,] was a goalkeeper growing up.”

Added Alex: “My mom was scared, she didn't want me in there. She was worried I was going to get hurt. My dad was very proud, sent me a message after the game … It was actually, as a family, a perfect game for them, just because their two boys are the ones who were credited for a big, big part of the reason why we won that game.”

That’s becoming an increasingly common occurrence thanks to the dramatic strides made by the younger Roldan.

Alex agreed to go on trial during last year’s preseason, embracing a positional shift to fullback in the process and eventually winning over Seattle’s technical staff. Still, he started just three regular-season matches during the COVID-disrupted campaign. But a hamstring injury to now-Inter Miami CF right back Kelvin Leerdam at the outset of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs provided an opening, and Roldan made the most of it with a string of composed, impactful performances as the Rave Green marched to their fourth final in five years.

Heading into 2021, Schmetzer’s shift to a 3-5-2 shape provided another opportunity for Alex to seize. The system requires hard-running wingbacks capable of contributing on both sides of the ball, and it’s proved ideal for his skill set.

He’s started all six of SSFC’s matches so far, notching two assists and six key passes in addition to his diligent defensive duties against some of the Western Conference’s top attackers. He’s also shown a nous for combining with his brother, who often drifts out toward the right flank as he ably deputizes for injured playmaker Nico Lodeiro.

“I thought he was a wonderful midfielder, a crafty little midfielder that kept the ball,” said an admittedly biased Cristian of Alex. “But now we're seeing a different player where he can be facing the field, and his passing ability shines and his ability to cross the ball.

“I think a lot of the frustration – and confidence – was, ‘I'm getting cut by this team, but I'm going to show that I can come back in a different position and flourish.’”

Not so long ago, Seattle’s “Broldans” duo could be marginalized as something of a curiosity, a sign of the family-style atmosphere cultivated by Schmetzer and the rest of the club’s leaders but not necessarily the presence of two impact performers. That’s no longer the case.

“I've always been confident in myself and my abilities and what I can do. I think that the tough part is just all that coming together and coming to fruition,” said Alex. “The thing about this sport, it's all about timing. Last year in playoffs, Kelvin goes down with an injury and I have to step up and it just kind of propels my positioning on this team. And it's a difficult league, for sure, to break into, especially in this club, being the club that it is, the standards that they hold, the expectations, the players that they bring in.

“It's not an easy thing to do but if you stick by it, just like how Cristian did in his first few years, coming off the bench, just doing your part and then kind of biting your tongue and waiting for your opportunity.”