LOS ANGELES – One of the darling stories of this summer’s Gold Cup was El Salvador’s rise under head coach Hugo Perez, a run that culminated in a frenetic quarterfinal setback against invited guests Qatar.
La Selecta will soon look to prove their uptick is just getting started, as their World Cup Qualifying campaign gets underway with a Sept. 2 home game against the US men’s national team.
While most MLS eyes will drift toward head coach Gregg Berhalter’s side, some will certainly gravitate to the Central American country – specifically the role Seattle Sounders breakout star Alex Roldan could play. The 25-year-old’s international career is only four caps old, though he’s an important coup for El Salvador after opting for the Azul y Blanco while his older brother and club teammate Cristian approaches 30 USMNT appearances.
“I think we are prepared and ready for the US to show up at our front door,” Roldan said ahead of Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game against the Liga MX All-Stars, another marker in the wingback’s ascension. “I think the tough thing about coming to play at our place is that our stadium and our fans will be our support system. This is a different team than before, so we’re going to approach this differently and definitely hope to get the three points with any team that comes into our stadium.”
El Salvador gave Mexico a fright at the Gold Cup, finishing second in Group A and playing with panache that inspired the country and neutrals alike. And now the pressure increases over the 14-game Octagonal slog, one that leaves Perez’s squad looking to reach their first FIFA World Cup since 1982.
Roldan is one of several dual-national recruits under this new regime, a topic MLSsoccer.com’s Charlie Boehm previously explored. While Roldan was raised in California, his mother is from El Salvador and he was also eligible for Guatemala through his father’s background.
The decision proved fruitful immediately, as Roldan scored in his international debut, a 2-0 win over none other than Guatemala on July 11 to begin their Gold Cup campaign. A USMNT look didn’t seem imminent considering their impressive right-back depth, so Roldan joined an underdog that’s looking to prove Concacaf contains contenders beyond the traditional power-players.
“I know they’ve had their highs and lows, and I think the last decade has been on a little more of the low side,” Roldan said. “So going back to that era of success and talent in the team is definitely something that’s being preached by the coaching staff and also the players can sense it as well.
“We’re looking forward to the qualifiers to show that we’re here to compete. We’re here to try and make the World Cup and bring back the World Cup to El Salvador, and hopefully we can do that, but we know there’s going to be some tough games ahead.”
Roldan’s growing profile is fueled by success in Seattle, an MLS destination he first joined in 2018 after starring collegiately at Seattle University. But he was released after the 2019 campaign, which ended in an MLS Cup victory at the Sounders’ Lumen Field, offering a low point after that celebratory affair before nearly 70,000 spectators.
Re-signed for the 2020 season, he spent most of last year behind now-Inter Miami CF fullback Kelvin Leerdam, a former Dutch youth international who opted to represent Suriname later in adulthood. Roldan ultimately earned the starting role during last year's MLS Cup run, which ended with a defeat against the Columbus Crew.
Now in 2021, Roldan has taken an undisputed step forward. He’s one of two natural right backs on the MLS All-Star Roster alongside rising LA Galaxy talent Julian Araujo, a reward for sterling league form that’s seen him deputized at right wingback in Seattle’s three-man backline.
Through 17 starts this year, Roldan has one goal and three assists. He’s on pace to triple his previous career-high in minutes played.
“I think just having my wings spread a little bit; I think the coaching staff has given me the ability to just go out there and play and the formation change has really suited me,” Roldan said. “I can go up and down the field and play almost two positions at once as an outside back and as a winger. I think that’s all it took for me really was to just get a string of games together starting and just getting my feet wet. Luckily I’ve been able to continue that with almost now into the final third of the season.”
Following the All-Star Game, the "final third" Roldan referenced starts Sunday (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes) with a Cascadia rivalry game at home against the Portland Timbers as part of Heineken Rivalry Week. They’ve already beaten their Oregon-based rivals twice this year, including a stirring 6-2 win at Providence Park in mid-August.
The Sounders, who have six players in Los Angeles for the midseason festivities, currently sit first in the Western Conference and are chasing their second Supporters’ Shield in club history. They’re carrying a three-game winning streak – all on the road – and are showing few signs of slowing down as midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, defender Nouhou and goalkeeper Stefan Frei work their way back to full strength. This all comes after Seattle opened the season with an MLS record 13-game unbeaten run, too.
It leaves an important question: Were the Sounders, back in preseason, slighted? Roldan didn’t quite use that phrasing, but it’s clear he's motivated to prove doubts were misguided.
“I think a lot of people underestimated how good we were coming into the season, a lot of people projected us to kind of fall this year just because of the losses we had with Jordan Morris and Nico not being healthy,” Roldan said. “But that’s just part of our organization and the way we play, we’re ready to take on that challenge. MLS is not an easy league and I think we’re prepared for those battles and luckily we’ve been able to snag some wins in tough places.”
With that outlook, it’s easy to see why Roldan is a newfound El Salvador linchpin and soaking in his first All-Star Game experience. Moments like these, as well as the impending Heineken Rivalry Week game, only reinforce his emergence.
And this week in Los Angeles, it’s all occurring a short drive from where he grew up.
“That’s what makes [all this] even better, we grew up just a few miles from here, dating back to those days when we played at El Rancho [High School] and now here in front of thousands of fans against Mexican players,” Roldan said. “It’s a great accomplishment.”