When the Seattle Sounders decided to spend big on midfielder Joao Paulo from Botafago in Brazil, it immediately brought up an issue in the starting lineup. Seattle had no need for a defensive midfielder as they were returning both starters from their 2019 MLS Cup triumph in Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan. Those two were the rocks of the midfield for that team, breaking up opposing attacks, bodying people off the ball and were great at getting back up the field in transition when the Sounders surged forward after a recovery. So, what was the answer going to be for this dilemma? Head coach Brian Schmetzer decided to stick Roldan onto the wing.
We are now a couple months into this experiment, and it has been wholly fine. The Sounders overtook the top spot in the Western Conference Playoff standings in their 7-1 beatdown of the San Jose Earthquakes last weekend, an indicator that this setup hasn’t been an Achilles heel. What has been concerning is the overall lack of production from Roldan when he is on the right side of the midfield. He has totaled just one shot on target and a measly single chance created in the five games since the MLS restart. That has contributed to an average fotmob.com rating of 6.74 in those five games, which is a below average score. Wingers are expected to primarily contribute to the attack, especially in the 4-2-3-1 system that Schmetzer deploys. Especially when considering that there is an outside defensive fullback to patrol the defensive areas behind the winger. Roldan simply does not possess the athletic profile or skillset to be a consistent threat for the Sounders on the front foot.
Where the Sounders truly have benefitted from this setup is the defense. Roldan has enough defensive skill to help seal off the right side of the field or be an extra body in the Sounders defensive spine. He has won an average of 7.5 duels per game when operating on the right side, which displays his tenacity. But his biggest contribution is covering for fullback Kelvin Leerdam. Leerdam is aggressive in the attack and has technical abilities that few other full backs in the MLS possess. Schmetzer gives him the leeway to push up the field to his heart’s desire in order to exploit this advantage. When Leerdam races forward, Roldan will often occupy that vacated space and keep the Sounders defensive shape intact. As a combined flank, Roldan and Leerdam have combined for two goals while only allowing a single score from opposing attackers.
While a 2-to-1 goal disparity is a clear win for the Sounders, Seattle is clearly lowering their offensive ceiling doing this. In their demolishing of San Jose, Seattle moved Roldan back to his normal defensive center mid position and placed the much more potent Joevin Jones as the right winger. The results were emphatic, as Jones and Leerdam doubled the offensive output in the one game they played together compared to the four games played by the Roldan-Leerdam coupling. The three goals and one assist from that side also opened up the field for Jordan Morris and Raul Ruiziaz, as there was much less defensive attention put on the two of them when a true third attacking option was apparent on the opposite flank.
While Seattle can still be the top team in the Western Conference this season, playing Roldan at right mid could lower their offensive output enough to affect their ceiling in the playoffs and jeopardize the chance for a back-to-back MLS Cup.