[News] Immigrant World Cup dreams come true for Cristian Roldán

The Roldán family household in Pico Rivera breathes and dreams football. Its living room is stuffed with trophies, balls, jerseys, soccer boots and sports awards.

The family’s all-consuming conversation topic these days? The FIFA World Cup, which opens Sunday in the Middle East host nation of Qatar.

But it is on Monday that the Roldán clan will be utterly riveted by the world’s most popular sporting event. That’s when the U.S. men’s soccer team will take the field for its opening match, against Wales. Among the 26 U.S. players running onto the pitch will be Cristian Roldán, a midfielder with Salvadoran and Guatemalan roots who plays professionally for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer.

Among the fans at Al Rayyan Stadium for the biggest fútbol party on the planet will be his parents, César and Ana Roldán, immigrants from Central America who last week were scrambling to get ready to fly to Doha, the capital of Qatar, to watch their 27-year-old son play for his family’s adopted country. Cristian’s two brothers, César Arnoldo, 30, and Álex, 26, also will attend all three U.S. first-round matches.

“Everything is almost ready, only a few details are missing,” said Ana, a homemaker and native of Santiago de la Frontera, a municipality in the province of Santa Ana in the western part of El Salvador. The only thing still needed at that point were papers from the U.S. Soccer Federation.

“It’s hard to digest,” added César, originally from Zacapa, Guatemala. He still can’t quite absorb what his son has achieved, noting that he instilled a love of the sport in Cristian in order to keep him healthy and off the streets.

Ana immigrated to Houston in 1982, where she lived with her sisters before moving to L.A. two years later. César left Guatemala in 1982 in search of better job opportunities.

Cristian started playing soccer when he was 5, and his brothers also took up the sport and enrolled in local youth clubs. Their parents regularly shuttled them to tournaments. Sometimes, after working his nine-hour shift as a mechanic, César would arrive home at 6:30 a.m. and leave with the whole family for a match.

Although Cristian is currently his family’s star attraction, the Roldáns are equally proud of their other children’s achievements. César Arnoldo, 30, is the physical trainer of the L.A. Galaxy. Álex, 26, plays for the Seattle Sounders alongside his brother, and also has played for El Salvador’s national team.

Two Seattle Sounders jerseys hang in the family living room, Álex’s No. 16 and Cristian’s 7. On a glass table, between the sofas, rests a trophy that Cristian earned for scoring 54 goals for El Rancho High School in the 2012-2013 season, a performance that won him the Gatorade National Player of the Year award. Former U.S. national team star Alexi Lalas went to the high school to present the award to Cristian, his father recalled.

Before Cristian finished high school, the Roldáns sent DVDs showcasing his prowess to a dozen universities. The footballer was still in limbo when, at a tournament in San Diego, Ana noticed that the coach of the University of Washington team had come scouting for talent.

“If you’re looking for players, look at number 11,” Ana advised the coach.

It took only a few minutes of watching Cristian to convince him, and he called the family that afternoon.

After scoring 10 goals with seven assists in two seasons with the University of Washington Huskies, Cristian left college early to enter Major League Soccer. In 2016, he scored his first goal for the Seattle Sounders in a 5-0 rout of FC Dallas. At that time, the 21-year-old declared, “I want to win many trophies, I would like to go to a World Cup because it is the best soccer tournament.”

To date, in various competitions with the Seattle Sounders, he has made 279 appearances and scored 36 goals. Seattle won the MLS Cup in 2019. In Qatar, he’ll fulfill another part of his lifelong dream, facing England and Iran, along with Wales, in first-round play.

A photo of Cristian Roldán surrounded by other memorabilia at his parents’ Pico Rivera home.

(Raul Roa/Los Angeles Times)

A year ago, in preparation for the quadrennial event, the U.S. team settled in at Marina del Rey and trained at Dignity Health Sports Park, home field of the L.A. Galaxy, for a month. One day, Cristian suddenly informed his mother that he had a day off.

“Let’s go there, make ourselves some pupusas,” he proposed. World Cup U.S. team hopefuls Jordan Morris, Aaron Long, Matt Turner and Walker Zimmerman joined the impromptu fiesta.

“Morris has been here many times and he really likes the pupusas,” Ana said of her son’s Seattle Sounders clubmate. The teammates feasted on the popular Salvadoran dish while watching an American football game in the patio of the family home.

“They were screaming. We kept it very private,” César said

Although Cristian has found a favorite spot in Seattle that serves pupusas, he wouldn’t swap them for the ones he gets whenever he visits his parents.

“I love pupusas,” he told an MLS publication. But, he added, “I will always miss my mom’s.”

Ana Roldán, originaria de El Salvador, sostiene una foto del equipo campeón de El Rancho High School.

Ana Roldán, a native of El Salvador, shows off a photo of her son Cristian’s championship soccer team when he played for El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera.

(Raul Roa/Los Angeles Times)

Because of his ancestry, Cristian would’ve been eligible to play for El Salvador, Guatemala or the United States. He sought advice from several of his coaches, who urged him to stay patient and wait for a call-up from the U.S. team, because it had better resources and would give his career a bigger boost.

Gregg Berhalter, coach of the U.S. team, values not only Cristian’s prodigious skills but his temperamental traits.

“We know what kind of attitude you bring,” he told Cristian at one point. “Please keep doing that, your mentality is contagious.”

But in the days before Berhalter announced his final list of players for the tournament, the family had felt a bit uneasy.

“We were pacing here and there,” said César, who’d peppered his son with texts asking if he had heard any news.

Like his parents, Cristian was waiting anxiously in Seattle to see if he’d make the cut. Around 10 a.m. on Nov. 6 he got a text from Zimmerman, a defender with Nashville SC, stating that Zimmerman had made the World Cup squad.

El mediocampista de los Seattle Sounders, Cristian Roldán, ataca el balón durante un partido de fútbol de la MLS.

Cristian Roldán goes on the attack in a September 2021 match against Kansas City.

(Nick Tre. Smith / Associated Press)

A few more minutes passed that seemed like hours. Then Cristian got a call that made all the years of toil pay off with joy.

“Are you and mommy both there?” he texted his parents. His father confirmed that they were.

“I’m going to Qatar!” Cristian yelled, before shedding tears of gratitude for his parents’ dedication and sacrifice.

“Without you, I couldn’t be here,” he said between sobs. “From the bottom of my heart, I just want to thank you for everything.”

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