TORONTO – When the 2017 MLS Cup final kicks off at BMO Field on Saturday (4 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás in US, TSN1/4/5, TVAS in Canada), most spectators will be focused on the biggest, brightest stars of Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Nicolas Lodeiro.
Those who wish to see where and how the match will be controlled and influenced may want to expand their view to include two lesser-known protagonists, however.
It can be easy to overlook Marky Delgado and Cristian Roldan, quiet cogs in central midfield whose labor and intellect sets the stage for their big-name teammates to shine. But missing them means missing out on key elements in the success of MLS’s best teams this season.
“I think we play very simple. Our game is not flamboyant. We do our part for the team,” said Roldan on Thursday when asked about the relative lack of recognition granted to him and his opposite number with TFC. "[Delgado] does the little things right, just like myself. I try to be selfless and run for other people, and he does a tremendous job of that as well.”
Said Delgado: “I guess my play doesn’t really attract a lot of people. I just keep the game simple, really focus on my movement off the ball, and with the ball, play simple. I’m not really a flashy type of player so maybe that’s a reason why I’ve been overlooked.”
In some ways they’re mirror images. Both are unassuming 22-year-old Latinos from Southern California – Roldan’s hometown of Pico Rivera is a half-hour swing up the 605 from Delgado’s Glendora – who played together in the US youth national team systems, yet have been overlooked and underrated at multiple points in their careers.
Growing up, they’d known of one another on the SoCal scene and hit it off when their social circles crossed several years ago, when Delgado was a teenage Homegrown with Chivas USA and Roldan was starring at the University of Washington.
“It’s a very similar soccer world,” said Roldan with a smile. “Small world.”
There’s a common thread in how they arrived at their current stations, too. Roldan was the biggest snub of the 2015 SuperDraft, rated as a top-five prospect but, bafflingly, not drafted until the 16th pick. Delgado arrived in Toronto via the Chivas USA dispersal draft, conducted after the Goats’ 2014 swan song – a process in which seven teams passed on making any selection at all before TFC snapped him up at the No. 14 slot.
Now they find themselves facing off in the league championship for a second straight season. Roldan’s displays for the Sounders earned him a place in the US national team picture earlier this year, and despite relatively little buzz to that effect, Delgado aims for that milestone as well.
“I know Cristian, we’re good friends,” said Delgado. “We played together on the [youth] national team. He likes to keep the game simple, I like to keep the game simple as well. So we have very similar type of game. Maybe that’s why we get compared a lot. He gets more attention – I have nothing against that, I’m happy for him and I’m happy for the [US] call-ups he’s gotten and hopefully I can get my time soon.”
Though the two would likely be direct competitors for minutes in the USMNT setup, Roldan offers up warm praise for Delgado from an angle that should be intriguing for US fans.
“Marky has had a spectacular year,” he said. “He has established himself as a really good No. 8; he makes Michael Bradley so much better, supports him in every way possible, and if you can have a player like that help Michael Bradley, you’re in for a good year.
“He makes the people around him so much better. In [TFC’s] last game against Columbus, [Jonathan] Osorio goes out, Marky comes in and immediately makes an impact for Toronto. You have a guy that’s going to work selflessly for the team … I hope he gets a chance, he totally deserves it. It’s not my decision but hopefully I’ll get to see him in camp.”
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LISTEN: The 2017 MLS season comes down to this... Seattle vs. Toronto, an MLS Cup rematch that might just be the best final of all-time, depending on who you ask. Will the Sounders repeat? Will the Reds lay claim the best season of all-time? David Gass and Sam Stejskal get things started from the Six, and Andrew and Matt finish things off from the Green Room back in NYC. Subscribe so you never miss a show! Download this episode!