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 By Matt Pentz

Roldan has proved his doubters wrong at every level -- will the U.S. be next?

Cristian Roldan conceals the chip on his shoulder well enough. Gracious, polite, and with a smile almost always spreading across his face, the third-year Sounders midfielder gives off the vibe of a player confident his best days are ahead of him.

Roldan, 21, has established himself as a cult favorite in Seattle -- active in the community, engaged on social media, teammate Jordan Morris' best friend. Yet every so often, via a slight narrowing of and glint in his brown eyes, Roldan provides a glimpse of the competitive spirit smoldering beneath the surface.

For all he's accomplished in the past year -- the vital role in Seattle's first MLS Cup title run and the hot start to 2017 -- he can't quite escape the prevailing theme of his young career: Every time Roldan proves himself at one level, familiar doubts tend to pop up between him and what he ultimately wants to achieve.

He was named Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player Of The Year in 2013 but didn't have a single Division I scholarship offer until partway through his senior year of high school. He was a projected top-three MLS SuperDraft pick in 2015 after two All-Pac-12 seasons at Washington, yet plummeted toward the bottom of the first round after a subpar league combine.

And despite plaudits that grow louder with each dominant performance in the Sounders' midfield, Roldan still cannot draw more than a passing glance from the U.S. men's national team.

The lack of external validation has served Roldan well to this point. He has honed a tunnel vision that focuses on means rather than ends -- on his craft rather than getting hung up on recognition. His coach at Washington, Jamie Clark, describes Roldan as singularly driven and mentally strong as any player he's ever coached.

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"I don't really care what anybody else thinks of me," Roldan said. "I just want to do my best every day. ... The way I grew up made me this way. I don't get too affected by what people say. Coming from a good family, I can't thank my parents enough for raising me the way they did. I'm just very proud to be in this spot."

It's ironic that a player who is so often overlooked began his soccer career in the spotlight.

At the age of 9, Roldan won a starring role at an open audition for an Adidas commercial that ran nationally. It takes a second to recognize him, but that's little Cristian, all right, picking plastic bags out of barbed-wire fences that he turns into a makeshift soccer ball before kicking it around in the ad's climax.

"It added a little bit of pressure," Roldan said. "In high school, a lot of people were saying, 'You have to play college. You have to play pro, because you did this so young.'"

For a while, he doubted he'd even check the first of those boxes. Scouts rely predominantly on select tournaments featuring prestige youth clubs, but Roldan passed over those opportunities to play with his buddies on his high school team at El Rancho in Pico Rivera, California.

While peers committed early, Roldan didn't attract interest from power programs until late. Patience paid off, as Washington's style proved to be an ideal fit for his skill set.

That experience proved formative. Other players might have fretted over their long fall down the draft board, but once Seattle traded up to nab Roldan at 16th overall, he spun it as a positive: He needn't even move out of his college house, which he shared with former Huskies teammates until recently.

Cristian Roldan
Proving the doubters wrong, Cristian Roldan flourished with MLS Cup-winning Seattle in 2016.

"I wouldn't have had it any other way," Roldan said. "Everything worked out. It's the story of my life. I was very, very lucky, and fortunate, at the right times."

He's unlikely to sweat whether United States coach Bruce Arena calls about this summer's Gold Cup.

Roldan is eligible to represent both Guatemala and El Salvador, too, since they are his parents' native countries. Though he says his primary goal is to play in a World Cup -- and the U.S. gives him the greatest odds to get there -- it's clear that he's giving serious consideration to every option.

Circumstance has tended to nudge him in the right direction so far.

Asked whether the events of that SuperDraft still serve as a motivating factor, a cloud slips in front of Roldan's sunny disposition. This is the moral of the story Arena might want to heed rather than face the midfielder in CONCACAF for the foreseeable future.

"It's still on my mind, even if it's not something I think about every day," Roldan said before making a head feint toward Seattle's MLS Cup triumph. "That beats out getting drafted 16th or whatever. I would prefer to win MLS Cup and get drafted 16th every year of my life.

"It's still motivating, playing other teams that could have drafted me. It makes you want to showcase how good you can be."

Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.

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