USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring the 12 athletes in the running for the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year, which will be announced July 16 in Los Angeles. Today's spotlight: Cristian Roldan (boys soccer).
“There was a tryout in a local league in Norwalk (Calif.),” he recalled. “I didn’t want to go. My dad kind of forced me to go so I thank him.”
MORE WITH GATORADE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR FINALISTS:
Max Browne (football)
Lauren Carlini (volleyball)
Sarah Baxter (girls cross country)
Andrew Wiggins (boys basketball)
Mercedes Russell (girls basketball)
Carley Hoover (softball)
Morgan Andrews (girls soccer)
In the 60-second spot, the young boy scours the streets of Los Angeles in search of dozens of plastic bags, which he then fashions into a soccer ball that he begins kicking around.
“It was very overwhelming, just because after that commercial, everybody’s eyes opened and they said ‘Well look at this kid, we have to expect so many great things from him.’ And I think that put a lot of pressure on me,” Roldan said.
Since then, Roldan has certainly lived up to those expectations. A four-year starter at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, Calif., Roldan won the Southern Section Division IV MVP as a sophomore, the Whittier Daily News Player of the Year award as a junior and the Southern Section Division III MVP as a senior. At the end of that final year, in which he scored 54 goals and added 31 assists, Roldan guided his team to the Southern California Division I Regional Championship.
“Even though he’s only about 5-8, he plays like 6-foot,” El Rancho coach Dominic Picon said. “He has incredible leaping ability and he’s extremely strong on the ball. Maybe 25 percent to one-third of his goals came from the air so he’s a very physical player and extremely good in the air.”
But perhaps Roldan’s greatest asset is his versatility.
“He’s played about three or four different positions for us,” Picon said. “This was his first year playing forward and he goes out and scores 54 goals. His true position is as an attacking midfielder, that’s probably his best position, but he can also play out wide in the midfield. And there’s been a lot of colleges who recruited him that have even talked about him being a defensive midfielder.”
“I think overall I try to make everybody better," Roldan said, "and put them in better position so I like passing the ball, distributing, touching the ball. I think that is my best attribute, just knowing when to pick the right pass.”
Starting this fall, the University of Washington coaching staff will have the tough, albeit enviable, decision of choosing a position for their talented incoming freshman.
“What makes Cristian special is that he is a true attacking talent with the work ethic and determination of a defensive midfielder. It's rare you find a player that can score goals that wants to defend and win defensive headers,” Huskies coach Jamie Clark said.
“Guys like him have the ability to come in and make an instant impact,” Clark added. “Goals in soccer are often hard to find, so when a guy has a knack for it then he becomes a valuable commodity.”
Despite all his achievements and the expectations his coaches have, Roldan knows the transition from high school to a more physical college game will take time.
“In high school, I was able to dictate where I wanted to be and I was probably one of the strongest players as a forward and holding off the defenders,” he says. “But I think I’m not going to be able to do that here in the college level. So I think it will be more of a touching kind of game, I think that will be the hardest part.”
Here's more of Roldan's conversation with USA TODAY High School Sports:
How early did you start playing soccer?
Roldan: I started at age four and I played on a local AYSO youth soccer team. I spent one year there and just went to club right away. I would practice with my older brother [Cesar] who is four years older so I think that helped me a lot in just getting faster and quicker on the ball, playing versus older guys.
What part of your game did you work the hardest to improve from your freshman year in high school to senior year?
Roldan: I think it was probably my left foot. Going into my freshman year of my high school career I could only stand on my left foot. I couldn’t even kick the ball with my left foot. So I think I probably scored half my goals my senior year with my left foot and that motivation to emphasize on kicking the ball the right way with my left foot really helped me. I focused on that the most because I thought every other part of my game was pretty strong but my left foot was really weak at the time.
In a tournament last December you had a five-goal game in which your coach says you only played roughly 65 minutes because it was a blowout. What was that day like?
Roldan: The University of Washington coaches actually came out that day. I really wanted to show that I could play forward as well. I think they came a little bit late and I scored two goals already so they didn’t get to catch those goals. But I thought that game really showed me what I could do. The competition wasn’t the greatest, but they weren’t bad either. That game showed me that I could have a 40-plus [goal] year or a 50-plus year, just because I have that hunger for the goal.
To cap your career at El Rancho High you led the Dons to a 3-0 victory over San Clemente in the Division I Regional Championship Game. How great was it for you to finish your high school career on such a triumphant note?
Roldan: The furthest I had ever gone in state before that was [my junior year] first round and we lost to San Clemente. It was probably the hardest loss I’ve ever taken in my life so winning that against San Clemente my senior year was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. And especially winning it with the 16 seniors we had and I had my little brother [Alex] on the team, which helped a bunch. I thought we had so much chemistry. Winning it my senior year just made my whole year, my whole high school career, everything, especially just winning it with the group of guys that I did.
You are 5-8, but your high school coach has pointed to that as a strength, not a weakness, for you. Why is that?
Roldan: In my high school or club level I was able to hold off defenders because I was a smaller player and really got low to the ground when needed. I think that helped me. I’m able to shift positions, able to move my feet, turn quick. Having quick feet really helped me out just because my feet are smaller than bigger players.
Washington will travel to Southern California to play UCLA, last year’s Pac-12 champion, this fall. What will playing in your hometown in front of so many friends and family members mean to you?
Roldan: Once I get back to my hometown I know that I’ll have a pretty large crowd supporting me from my city. And I know I will probably have one of my best games there just because the atmosphere that we’re going to have there and what it means to me because it is important, especially going back to the place that gave me so much.
World Cup star Alexi Lalas presented you with the Gatorade Player of the Year Award, by surprising you with the trophy in the middle of your marine biology class. How great was that moment for you?
Roldan: I saw a couple of YouTube videos about it before. I saw last year’s winner. And once I saw Alexi Lalas that really took a toll on me and made me realize how big of an award I was receiving. Just to see Alexi Lalas in my classroom, in the city of Pico Rivera was a huge deal. Winning that award just surprised me. I really didn’t think I had—not what it takes, because I am a confident player—but out of so many people in the nation it was a tremendous award, especially receiving it at my school.
If you can achieve just one goal for your playing career after college what would it be? MLS? Olympics? World Cup? Premier League?
Roldan: My biggest goal would probably be going to the Premier League and eventually getting chosen for the national team and ending up at a World Cup. So I guess a little bit of both worlds. I think representing the U.S. at a World Cup is probably more important to me, but reaching the Premier League—I know a lot of Americans can do that—that would probably be my main focus on getting into that better soccer in Europe. So if I had to choose one or the other it’s probably the Premier League.