A.J. Soares vs. Sporting Kansas City

Reporting for duty

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the May 14 game against Vancouver Whitecaps FC

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – A.J. Soares graduated from the University of California in three-and-a-half years with a degree in sociology, but in many ways, the 22-year-old’s professional education didn’t truly begin until he arrived in Foxborough four months ago.

Following a standout career with the Golden Bears – one which included 2010 Pac-10 Player of the Year honors – Soares was selected by the New England Revolution with the sixth overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft on January 13, and every day since has been a learning experience. There’s been new teammates, new tactics, new formations – it’s all been a bit of information overload.

Luckily for the Revolution, Soares has been up to the task. While in college up the coast from his hometown of Solana Beach, Calif., Soares displayed a thirst for knowledge as evidenced by his early graduation. On the soccer field thousands of miles away from home, he’s demonstrated that same eager attitude.

“He’s done extremely well,” head coach Steve Nicol said of Soares, who was tabbed as one of New England’s starting central defenders from the beginning of the season. “You’re asking an inexperienced guy to come in straight away and start at the back of your defense, which isn’t an easy thing to do. But he’s been up for the challenge, stood up to everything that’s been thrown at him and he’s done well.”

Soares has done well enough to garner attention from national soccer media, who’ve consistently mentioned the cerebral defender amongst the early candidates for MLS’ rookie of the year award. Pundits have noted Soares’ tactical awareness and sound positioning as two of his greatest strengths – traits which have drawn comparisons to former Revolution defender Michael Parkhurst – while he’s also proven a strong physical presence when necessary.

As for the admittedly premature rookie of the year discussion, Soares illustrates a decidedly veteran approach to the praise.

“You can never judge something like that so early in the year,” said Soares, pointing out fellow rookie Will Bruin’s hat trick for the Houston Dynamo on April 29. “More importantly, I want the team to do well. I’d rather win games than win some prize like that.”

Still, there’s no denying that early in his career, Soares has lived up to his billing as the sixth overall pick in the draft. Whether fair or not, certain expectations to perform immediately are placed on players drafted in the first round, particularly those taken in the top 10.

Despite the hype, Soares never paid much attention to such external factors.

“I think you can only feel the weight (of expectations) if you put it on yourself,” he said. “I didn’t really feel the weight coming in. I can imagine there were probably expectations being the (Revolution’s) first pick, but the only thing you can really do is just play your game. That’s all you can control.”

Play his game is exactly what Soares has done, but not without some adjustments along the way.

The transition from the college game to MLS is one which is made by scores of rookies every season, some more successfully than others. Soares has found coping with the increased level of play requires both thinking and acting more quickly.

“Definitely just the speed of everything – speed of play, speed of players, the strength,” Soares said when asked about the biggest differences between college soccer and MLS. “Everyone’s bigger and faster. You have to be focused every day. You can’t take a day off or you’re going to fall behind.”

There’ve been new obstacles off the field, as well, including the oft-discussed travel requirements which typically prove most difficult for European players unaccustomed to crossing time zones so regularly. Already Soares has embarked upon three cross-country trips to the West Coast – twice to Los Angeles and once to Vancouver – and the experience has been eye opening.

“It’s tough,” Soares admitted. “You really need to focus on getting your body right and being prepared for the game, because if you don’t put all of your energy into resting on those trips and getting your legs ready for the game in the short amount of time that you have, you’re not going to be up to speed. If you’re not up to speed in this league, you’re going to get blown away.”

Considering Soares has yet to be blown away, one can assume the rookie has taken the proper precautions. In such matters, Soares deflects the credit for his early success to those who’ve helped him along the way, particularly veteran defender Ryan Cochrane, who serves as his roommate on road trips.

“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Soares said of Cochrane, who is currently in his eighth year in the league. “He’s helping me through any time I see something new – a West Coast road trip, a home game after a loss, anything like that. He’s been in that situation so he’s helped me in every way. Not to mention he’s a cool guy.”

Soares also mentioned captain Shalrie Joseph and veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis amongst the most influential players in his development – “If you’re not playing up to your [potential], they’re telling you and they’re making you get better every day,” he said – but much of the recognition must go to Nicol, who has proven an invaluable resource for the rookie.

Nicol was a world class defender himself during a 20-year professional career, which most notably included a 15-year stint with legendary English club Liverpool FC and three appearances with the Scotland National Team at the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. During his 10 seasons in charge of the Revolution, the 49-year-old has gained a reputation for his ability to develop young defenders.

“I learn something new every single day from him,” Soares said of Nicol. “He’s played in situations which nobody here has. He’s played in big European cup games, he’s played in games that you need to win (in order) to win the league. With that kind of experience, I think that’s something he can pass on to me because I’ve never experienced that.”

One area in which Soares would actually prove teacher for Nicol, however, is in the realm of social media. From Twitter (@ajsoares), to Facebook (facebook.com/aj.soares) to his personal web site (www.ajsoares.com), Soares has an unmistakable presence on the internet.

Most notably, Soares developed his own video feature on the Revolution’s official web site, revolutionsoccer.net, before he’d even stepped on the field in a professional game. Dubbed The Soares Report, the feature follows the rambunctious rookie as he explores the halls of the Revolution’s team hotel during a preseason trip to Kennesaw, Ga., with microphone in hand and camera in tow as he lightheartedly interviews his teammates in an informal setting.

The Soares Report has served to give Revolution fans a window into Soares’ playful personality, while it’s also provided a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes life of a professional athlete.

“There’s a personal connection between the players on the field and the fans,” said Soares. “We’re all part of one organization. We just happen to be the players, but there are so many people involved, [including] the fans.

“I wanted to do something that kind of let those people in a little bit more, let them see the team, because they’re dedicated,” he continued. “There are people traveling to all the games, season ticket holders and people in The Fort who are at every single game, and they deserve to get a little taste of what it’s like to actually be in the squad, because their dedication is equally as important as ours in a lot of ways.”

It’s a novel approach from the southern California kid, who still catches good-humored flak from his teammates for his open and laid back personality.

“I never knew I was different,” Soares said with a chuckle when asked whether he’d always been so accessible. “Put me in San Diego and I’m just a pretty normal person.”

While that may be true, Soares is far from normal on the soccer field, where Revolution fans expect he’ll continue to excel as he develops his game day-by-day. With such enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, the young defender will only get better with the more knowledge he accumulates.

Perhaps because he’s so open, Soares isn’t shy about letting the fans know what they should anticipate from him in the future.

“On the field, you can expect me to work as hard as I can for 90 minutes,” he said. “Whether I’m having a good day or bad day on the ball, a good day or bad day defending, I’m going to put in the effort every single day, every single minute of the game. I think that’s the biggest thing you can ask of a player.

“Off the field, I have a lot of pride for the teams that I play for, so you’re going to see a guy who wants to represent the organization as best as he can,” Soares concluded. “You can expect me to be someone who’s going to be representing the fans and the organization in a positive way.”