It was remarkable that Cristian Roldan had a decision to make.
He hadn’t played for a fancy Southern California club or gone to a private high school. Instead he took up with El Rancho High School in tiny Pico Rivera, Calif. He scrounged for every minute on the practice field. He had no scholarship offers, and when he sent out highlight videos to 30 colleges, didn’t hear back from one of them.
Overlooked his entire career, Roldan took an untraditional pathway to the professional ranks. As he quietly became a key cog in the Seattle Sounders’ run to the 2016 MLS Cup title, he caught international attention.
Now, Roldan needed to decide which country to represent internationally at the senior level.
His father, Cesar Roldan, came from Guatemala. His mother, Ana, from El Salvador. They arrived in the USA in 1982. His parents’ home countries had come to call for his services on the soccer field, but the ultimate choice came clearly.
“I definitely had a little bit of pressure choosing a country,” Roldan said. “I obviously have Latino roots. My parents come from tough backgrounds, and they come here and establish themselves as a family. I think that’s what makes playing for the U.S. so special.”
Roldan would represent the country that had given his parents so much. The country that had provided the opportunity for two immigrants that hardly spoke English to get jobs, work hard and start a family. The Roldans lived the American dream. Now, Cristian would live his on the field.
On July 12, 2017, Roldan made his debut for the U.S. Men’s National Team against Martinique. The Gold Cup appearance cap-tied him to the USA, and his parents couldn’t have been prouder.
“We got goosebumps,” Cesar said. “We used to tell him to go where his heart guides him. Thousands and thousands of players, not all of them go that far. For him to make it there for a country that has been very generous to us, for him to represent this country, it’s indescribable. We are happy. This country took us under its wing and gave us all we have. To have a son represent this country is amazing.”
Cristian’s American dream took root in the sunny SoCal suburb of Pico Rivera. The small town’s population stands at 90 percent Hispanic, and as such soccer reigns supreme. That environment plus some strong Salvadorian soccer blood on his mother’s side ensured that all three Roldan boys would grow up with the beautiful game. However, finding practice time proved difficult.
“We didn’t necessarily have the resources,” Roldan said. “It was a little frustrating compared to the other kids and it was a bit of a struggle. The first step for us to go pro was to play for a good club or to play on a team that goes to big tournaments, which was a struggle.”
The Roldan brothers made use of whatever resources they could whenever they came available. Around Pico Rivera, Cristian stood eager for any soccer opportunity, until his dad encouraged him to audition for a soccer-themed commercial. To get Cristian out the door posed a massive struggle, but once he arrived at the tryout he immediately stood out. The producers sought out a kid with serious juggling skills. Cristian fit the bill.
The commercial featured Roldan on the run around Los Angeles in search of plastic grocery bags. As he plucked them from the street and dove into dumpsters, he started to tie them together into a ball. Roldan’s character mirrored his own personality, you can play wherever, with whatever you have.
“I didn’t want to go. I wanted to play some video games and hang out with my brothers,” Roldan said. “I was crying and he literally dragged me out of the house to go. During the tryouts I think they saw a little bit of my personality. The gist of the commercial is you can play soccer anywhere, you can make something out of nothing and get better every day. He makes the ball out of something that he can find or is available. I’d like to think my storyline is kind of a version of it.”
Soon after, he became a known commodity in Pico Rivera. El Rancho High School sat at the center of the small tight-knit community. Roldan’s older brother Cesar played for the Dons’ esteemed soccer team. Cristian tagged along to training and practice.
He caught the eye of El Rancho head coach Dominic Picon in those cameo appearances, but he also drew the attention of some prestigious private high schools. They offered lucrative scholarships for Cristian to come and represent them on the field. But after years of following Cesar to practice, Roldan chose to play with his childhood friends for El Rancho, the team at the heart of the town.
“It was a priority for Cristian to continue playing with the kids from the community that he had grown up with. He wanted to finish off at El Rancho High School,” Picon said. “El Rancho was able to beat teams that a lot of people thought we shouldn’t have. Not only did he carry the team on his back, but he gave them a confidence. Kids have said they went into games knowing that they were going to win, not hoping to win, not wanting to win.”
After a freshman year hampered by injury, Roldan stepped in his sophomore season to lead a young varsity squad. From then on, Cristian continued to improve and so did the Dons. His ascendance as a player mimicked El Rancho’s rise to a SoCal power.
“His career really mirrored what El Rancho did every year,” Picon said. “El Rancho became a little bit more competitive his sophomore year and a little bit more mature his junior year, able to play against some of the bigger squads. By 2013, we were defeating some of the best teams in Southern California. Likewise, Christian got a little bit better every year. One year it was working on his left foot, another year it was becoming better in the air. Another year was becoming a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, being able to dribble past more players. Every year he progressed kind of like the school did.”
After a deep run in the state playoffs during Roldan’s junior year, the team faced a gaping hole in the attack as they prepared for the next season. Their target man the previous year had set a school record with 54 goals, but with him gone they lacked a serious scoring threat. With a chance to take the team to the next level, Roldan’s versatility proved essential for the Dons.
“We knew we needed some goals so we moved Christian up top,” Picon said. “He shattered the record with 54 goals in one season. He went from a creator, a playmaker to being a finisher. In 2013, the team won the California Interscholastic Federation title and the Southern California Regional Championship, which is kind of the de facto state title.”
To put an exclamation point on the state title run, Roldan’s efforts earned him National High School Player of the Year honors. Despite his upward trend with El Rancho, he didn’t have a single college scholarship offer as he prepared for his senior campaign. Picon sent out highlight reels of his star to 30 universities nationwide, and brought Roldan to soccer camps in the hopes that he’d catch at least one scout’s eye.Nothing stuck until Ana physically caught a scout’s attention. At a club soccer tournament prior to the start of Roldan’s senior year, Washington head coach Jamie Clark sat down next to her. She asked him who he had come to watch, but told him to watch her son.
Washington offered a scholarship within the week.
“I think the struggle of not getting a college scholarship shaped who I am,” Roldan said. “On the field, I want to show that I have that extra grit because that’s where I come from.”
After he reached the peak of prep sports at El Rancho, Roldan had to prove himself again in an unfamiliar place. He made enough of an impression to win Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors ahead of Stanford’s Jordan Morris, his future teammate for club and country. Two years proved to be enough for Roldan to show himself ready for the pros. He signed a contract with the league and declared for the MLS SuperDraft in January 2015.
Roldan was projected as a top-five pick, but just like his recruiting process, it didn’t come that easily. Roldan sat and waited as 15 players came off the board at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Finally, Seattle Sounders FC called his name at No. 16. After it had become his second home in college, Roldan would remain in the Emerald City to begin his professional career.
“Seattle has been so good to me,” Roldan said. “It’s such a progressive city that has people who just want to see other people do better, do big things and achieve life goals. Whether that’s starting a family or becoming a professional or getting a good job, people in Seattle just want to see you do well.”
Like his first stint in Seattle, it didn’t take long for Roldan to make an impact. In 2016 during his second season, he managed to become a fixture in the Sounders’ starting XI and a key cog in the club’s run to the 2016 MLS title. The kid from Pico Rivera, unwanted by 30 colleges and 14 MLS teams, hoisted the Cup on a cold December night in Toronto.
“We’re still living the dream.” Cesar said. “We don’t want to wake up. All the satisfaction that we get from these three kids, it’s amazing. All the places we’ve been because of them, because of their hard work, we’ve been blessed.”
Once spurned and overlooked, Roldan’s play for the Sounders put him in high demand. El Salvador and Guatemala called with national team invitations. Those initial inquiries stood as tempting offers. His entire career, Roldan neglected to put his hand over his heart for the National Anthem. Even when international play seemed like a distant dream, he knew his loyalties split three ways. He didn’t want to show favoritism to any nation before he made a final decision.
Years ago, Roldan had chosen his pals from Pico Rivera over other options. With Central America in line for his services, he once again waited to commit to where his true loyalties lay.
The call came last summer. An invitation to the U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the 2017 Gold Cup.
“When the call came up for the National Team, I started thinking of the kid that was always ready to go to practice,” Cesar said. “We never struggled to get him ready. He always had his schoolwork done, his soccer shoes on and he’s back there waiting for us to take him to practice. A kid that does that, has that discipline, deserved this call-up. We were very excited for him, very happy, because he’s always worked hard.”
Finally, the always-ready kid stood eager to pledge allegiance to the Red, White and Blue. Named a starter for the MNT’s second group stage game against Martinique, Roldan proudly marched out of the tunnel. As the National Anthem played, at long last he decisively placed his hand over his heart.
“It was pretty satisfying and pretty emotional holding my hand over my heart and singing the National Anthem with such desire and pride because of how special the United States has been for us,” Roldan said. “It was special for my parents. Seeing their kid grow up in front of their eyes and play at the highest level possible, it was just an extremely satisfying moment for them. They came here with not much, didn’t speak English and to see their family flourish as a whole, I think it was extremely satisfying.”
Mr. and Mrs. Roldan didn’t have much when they came to the USA in 1982. They worked hard and toiled in thankless jobs, bought a house and built a family in Pico Rivera. As a kid, Cristian scrounged for every minute with a soccer ball and fashioned a ball out of grocery bags on television. Unwanted by colleges, he played ascendant four years of high school ball, became a professional player and went on to represent the U.S. Men's National Team.
Soccer is also a family affair. His younger brother Alex was also selected by Seattle Sounders FC in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft and has joined Cristian in the Rave Green midfield, while his older brother Cesar currently serves as an athletic trainer for the LA Galaxy.
“His family’s story is really the embodiment of the American dream,” Picon said. “The family came over here with nothing, very limited English and within his father’s generation, they became a middle-class family, they utilized the public school system to do the right thing for their kids as far as education goes, as far as athletics go. It speaks volumes about his family and his perseverance. It’s a lot of pride when I see him step on the field for the United States.
The USA helped the Roldans build a family. Now that he has built a career in soccer, Cristian looks to give back to the country they all call home.
“We owe a lot to the United States,” Roldan said. “The family that my mom and dad were able to raise wouldn’t have happened without the United States. They came here with the American dream to find a better life, to put a roof over their heads and raise their family. They were able to make something out of nothing. I think that’s why the U.S. is so special to us. Hopefully this is one way I can definitely repay it.”
“His family’s story is really the embodiment of the American Dream. The family came over here with nothing, very limited English and within his father’s generation, they became a middle-class family, they utilized the public school system to do the right thing for their kids as far as education goes, as far as athletics go. It speaks volumes about his family and his perseverance.”
- El Rancho head coach Dominic Picon