SEATTLE -- When Cristian Roldan was a boy, he fantasized about one day pulling on FC Barcelona's famous blue-and-garnet jersey.
Like many soccer-crazed youngsters of his generation, Roldan idolized Barca midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi. They shaped how he saw the game. They were the guys he lined up alongside in his daydreams.
Most of us outgrow such adolescent fantasies by the time we hit our teens. Roldan's experience has been the opposite -- if anything, he's grown into his.
Now, Barcelona might still be a stretch. The top end of La Liga might as well exist on another planet from even Major League Soccer's best few sides.
But at the tail end of yet another standout season with the Seattle Sounders and ahead of Tuesday's Western Conference final first leg against Houston, it is fair to speculate just how high Roldan might still rise. Given that he hasn't bumped up against any obstacle so far placed before him, what is his ultimate ceiling?
"The one thing that has been proven that if you surround him by any group of players, he'll rise to them, and over time, surpass them," said Jamie Clark, his coach at the University of Washington. "The question is how many great players do you surround him with? Will he get the chance to rise again?"
Roldan is still only 22 years old, and although it feels as though he's been a Sounders centerpiece forever now, this is still only his third season as a pro.
Every year has brought marked improvement. During his rookie campaign, just breaking into Seattle's veteran-laden rotation was an achievement. Last season, Roldan came into his own next to Osvaldo Alonso, the defensive midfield partnership the club's first MLS Cup championship run was built around.
And in 2017, Roldan both finally earned his first U.S. men's national team cap and further established himself as one of Seattle's best players. For most of the Sounders' MLS history, their fate has hinged Alonso's health. The Cuban has long been the team's glue guy, the one whose very presence makes everything else tick. Despite missing Alonso for sizable chunks of this stretch run, however, Seattle has soldiered on, and that is in large part due to Roldan picking up so many of his partner's previous responsibilities.
Roldan will never rack up an impressive stat sheet. That isn't his game. His six goals and three assists this season aren't nothing, but nor do those numbers really reflect his influence. Other metrics regard him more highly. WhoScored's system, for example, rates Roldan's performance this season sixth overall in all of MLS, behind only stars like David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Josef Martinez and ahead of likely league Newcomer of the Year Miguel Almiron of Atlanta.
Given all of that, there is a notable lack of hype around Roldan. Most young Americans with those accolades would have long ago been saddled with the baggage of being the Next Big Thing.
Some of that has to do with his position. Defensive midfielders don't typically attract much of the spotlight. They traffic in the game's subtleties, and they're far more likely to earn the adoration of their peers than casual fans watching on TV. Some of that might be temperament: not unlike his coach Brian Schmetzer, Roldan is so down-to-earth and self-effacing that it can be hard to picture him as a future global superstar.
For whatever reason, Roldan has been overlooked and underappreciated at nearly every level to this point in his young career. He was lightly recruited out of high school in his native Southern California and Clark only stumbled across him on accident after showing up at the wrong field during a scouting trip. Roldan was a projected top draft pick after leaving UW following his sophomore season yet fell all the way toward the bottom of the first round before Seattle traded up to nab him at 16th overall.
Clark has long spoken glowingly about Roldan's unique potential to anybody who would listen, but he hasn't often found an engaged audience. He remembers taking the Huskies to Scandinavia the summer before Roldan's sophomore year, and how the player stood out even when playing against opponents from Sweden's top division. Try as Clark might, however, he was never able to drum up more than a passing interest from any of the pro teams they played against and often defeated.
"It's funny, because now, playing in Sweden would almost be a step down for him," Clark said. "The positive with Cristian is that he'll never settle. I think he would learn from playing with and against the best. ... The good thing for him is Seattle will always bring in good players. It's clear he learned from [Nicolas] Lodeiro, and [assistant coach Gonzalo] Pineda, but he needs to continually be surrounded by great guys, because he's a sponge."
Roldan, mindful of how positive Seattle has been to his development so far and ahead of such an important series, opened up about his childhood affection for Barcelona but was cautious when asked whether playing abroad was still a dream of his.
"Every professional player wants to play at the highest level, and Europe is definitely one of them," Roldan said. "You want to play in one of the biggest leagues in the world. Obviously MLS is a growing league and it has its quality. But I do believe that Europe is certainly a possibility.
"I believe that hopefully one day I can get to that high level, whether it's in a few years, maybe it's not. Maybe it's with the U.S. ... It would be nice to get a few more caps and really showcase what I can do."
Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey, too, answered diplomatically, giving his standard spiel about MLS' growing quality before eventually giving more of a straight answer about Roldan's trajectory.
"I wouldn't put a cap on that kid's progress or future or his trajectory," Lagerwey said. "He's done everything that we've asked. He's a phenomenal worker. He's a phenomenal talent. So far, he has done everything he put his mind to.
"He has got a very, very high ceiling and looking forward to watching him progress and continue to improve."