The most difficult decision of Cristian Roldan's young soccer career had nothing to do with a game.
Because his mother was born in El Salvador and his father in Guatemala, Roldan was eligible to play for either national team. So when both came calling, he admits he was torn: Should he honor the grit and determination of his father Cesar, who came to the U.S. nearly penniless but built a family out of nothing? Or recognize the sacrifice of his mother Ana, who fled a civil war only to wind up working two minimum-wage jobs in Los Angeles to get by.
"I for sure have thought about those different options," Roldan said.
Instead he chose a third one, waiting patiently for the U.S. — his homeland — to call. That happened three months ago and Roldan said the team didn't have to wait long for his response.
"My family, they came over here in search of a better life and they were able to do so because of the freedom here and the ability to make something out of nothing," said Roldan, who was born in Southern California. "I felt I owed it to the United States a little bit."
His father agreed.
"We're in debt to this country," he said. "The best thing that could happen is my son going to represent this country internationally."
The Seattle Sounders' midfielder is hoping for another chance to pay down that debt when national team coach Bruce Arena calls 26 players into training camp Sunday ahead of crucial World Cup qualifiers with Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.
"Just getting on to the national team was a start. And hopefully I can grow as a player and play a bigger role," said Roldan, who has been named to the national team twice but has played in just one game, going 90 minutes in a Gold Cup win over Martinique.
Waiting for recognition isn't anything new for Roldan, 22. At El Rancho High in Pico Rivera, he was a two-time CIF player of the year and the Gatorade national player of the year as a senior. But he started his senior year without a scholarship offer.
His high school coach, Dominic Picon, sent a highlight DVD to 30 colleges. None responded.
So when Washington coach Jamie Clark sat down next to Ana Roldan at a preseason tournament in San Diego and asked which player he should watch, she pointed to her son. A day later her boy was offered a scholarship.
That was part of the American dream his parents hoped for when they left Central America on tourist visas in 1982, meeting in Los Angeles soon afterward.
Cesar had been as a mechanic at a car dealer in Guatemala but could find nothing better than sporadic part-time jobs in Los Angeles. Ana, who grew up on a ranch and attended a small college in El Salvador, worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop during the day and in a fast-food restaurant at night.
Despite the hardships, when their visas expired, family members warned both against returning to their war-ravaged homes. So they stayed, got married, obtained legal status under President Reagan's amnesty program and started a family.
All three of their sons played soccer, honing their skills by shooting at a backyard goal their father fashioned out of plastic pipe. Each is now accomplished in his own right: The eldest, Cesar Jr., who once biked 4,000 miles across the continent in a charity fundraiser, is a trainer with the Colorado Rapids, while Alex, the youngest, is a senior midfielder at Seattle University.
But when they were growing up, Cesar Roldan worked an overnight shift, arriving home at 5 a.m., which gave him an hour to shower and eat before he had to drive his sons to soccer tournaments all over Southern California.
While the boys played, he often slept in the car.
"Every free minute that I had," he said "it was for my kids."
The boys also played volleyball, urged on by Picon, whose wife coached an El Rancho team that was short on talent. And all three made the all-league team in their second sport.
For Cristian, volleyball also taught him one of his most valuable soccer skills.
"He's got an excellent jump. And his technique is almost perfect," Picon says of the 5-foot-7 Roldan. "A lot of times he'll win headers over players who are far taller."
However, his parents make sure he spends most of the time with his feet on the ground. Although Roldan has played for the U.S. and won an MLS Cup with a Seattle team that is headed back to the playoffs, when he comes home to visit he sleeps with his two brothers in the same bedroom they shared as boys.
Only now Cristian no longer needs a ride to games.
"Now we get to see him playing in the MLS and getting called up for the national team. That's wonderful," Cesar Roldan said. "We're living a dream.
"I'm not saying it's a dream that came true. I'm saying it's a dream that we're living in."