From California to New England: A.J. Soares takes the next step

The New England Revolution selected 22-year-old center back A.J. Soares with the sixth pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. (Courtesy Major League Soccer)

By Kevin Koczwara

The New England Revolution allowed a league leading 50 goals in the 2010 Major League Soccer season, and had a minus-18 in goal differential. Injuries plagued the team, and Steve Nicol shifted the squad almost every game, trying to find the perfect fit. It proved especially difficult for a team without a true identity or a true goalscorer, and a battered and bruised bunch playing out of position because there just weren’t enough bodies left on the bench.

At 9-16-5 (31 points) the Revolution missed out on the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in nine years, and it became clear in the Revolution’s 3-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in the last game of the season that New England needed to make some big moves, starting with the MLS SuperDraft.

With the sixth pick in the draft, the Revolution selected A.J. Soares, a 22-year-old central defender from the University of California.

Soares approached the podium and spoke, his grey tailored suit and California tan showed a man ready to move on to the next level. His maturity shined as he veered from the norm and excluded praise for a girlfriend and all the sappy “heartfelt thanks.” Soares approached the stand and thanked his coaches and his parents, the people who got him to the podium, to the next level – to the New England Revolution with the sixth pick in the 2011 SuperDraft.

Maturity has been one of Soares’ biggest assets. After playing 11 years of soccer with Surf club he committed to the University of California Berkley.

Kevin Grimes, Cal’s coach, knew after meeting with Soares during an unofficial visit in his junior year of high school that the young man was well beyond his years; a player worthy of a coveted scholarship.

“You never know when you get all your freshman recruits in if they’re going to pan out for you either immediately or in the course of their four years at the school. The one thing that gives you a little indication that they are going to turn out for you to be a very good player is when we get to meet them in person and get a sense of their personality and maturity,” says Grimes. “And A.J. had great personality. His maturity level was beyond his years. From that standpoint, you knew you had a special person.”

Soares became a four year starter at Cal and captained the Golden Bears in his senior year. Coaches and journalists took notice of his maturity and growth in college, naming him to the 2010 NSCAA First-Team All-America and the Pac-10 Player of the Year. At the end of his junior year, just one season ago, the MLS took notice and almost signed Soares to a Generation Adidas contract.

“He was recruited as a junior to potentially be a Generation Adidas player, so we almost lost him in his junior year to the GA process. At the end of the day he was on a short list of players and he was probably the last guy they didn’t sign as a GA after his junior year,” said Grimes. “Not only me, but also MLS coaches and experts knew that as a junior he was ready to go to the next stage.”

A.J. has been preparing for the next stage ever since he was a kid. Watching his older brother Steven play soccer for Surf inspired him to start kicking about. He used to watch and kick the ball around on the sidelines while Steven played. He tried out for the team at 6, but didn’t earn a place just yet. He had to wait another year. Soares jumped into the team as an attacking midfielder playing through the center of the field, like his older brother. A.J. played 11 years with the club, growing and developing into one of its best.

A Step Up

While playing for Surf, Soares was scouted by Anthony Bruce of Southern California’s Olympic Development Program (ODP). Bruce was asked by former U.S. Men’s National Team coach Steve Sampson, then Cal South’s director, to watch Soares play. Sampson had seen Soares’ team play and was impressed with the midfield, but he wanted Bruce’s input before sending the invite.

“When he was 12 years old I first saw him. Steve Sampson, who was my boss at Cal South, was the director of Cal South and the ODP program and he watched his [A.J.’s] team play and really liked him and asked me to have a look at him,” says Bruce. “I really liked a lot of the team, but AJ was an attacking center midfielder and in a team that was technically very good he stood out.”

Bruce asked Soares to try out for the 1988 team — teams are broken into the years players were born. Soares made one of the two teams from southern California. Bruce was asked to coach one of the teams. It just so happened the team turned out to be the same one Soares got picked to play on. The two would work together for the next seven years off and on.

Sampson decided on two teams to go to the regional camp in Oregon. That meant 36 of the best players from southern California would play for a shot at the national championship. Soares was one of the lucky 36 players.

“That team won the national championship. We beat Wisconsin 7-0 in the final. A.J. was on that team,” said Bruce. “Nine of the starting 11 were in residency in Florida. A.J. was never in residency, but he was certainly good enough. When you look at it, nine were in residency and seven went to Peru for the Under-17 World Cup from that Cal South team. He was in good company.”

Soares had to move out of his comfort zone while playing for the ODP team. With the majority of players being center midfielders, A.J. had to find a new place to play. Bruce pushed A.J. out on the wing and helped instill a new part to Soares’ evolving game: the ability to play the killer long ball over or through the defense.

Unlikely comparison

Soares grew up a fan of David Beckham during his Manchester United and Real Madrid days. He went bought VHS tapes of Beckham and other players and try imitate them. Bruce helped A.J. develop a part of Beckham’s game that has long been his best attribute: the long ball and the ability to shift the flow of a game with one pass.

“Kids from southern California who play on nice fields 12 months out of the year have a tendency to just play short passes because we have the conditions here. We don’t have the East Coast or northern California type weather where the fields get really muddy, so there is no need for us to play a longer ball,” says Bruce, who learned to play on the muddy fields and streets of Scotland.

“One of the things I noticed was A.J. was willing to just play the simple balls and keep possession, and he did it very well. But he wasn’t a dangerous player,” said Bruce. “So, that started the growth to get him to be more Beckham-ish with his balls. He started hitting longer balls from flank to flank. If you watch him, he can hit a ball similar to a David Beckham. He can ping the ball and put it right on the money.”

That ability to switch the ball, to strike it and hit a teammate on the move with either foot caught Grimes’s eye.

“When I first saw him play, I thought he had a great field presence and a great sense for the game,” says Grimes. “The first thing I saw was his great distribution, particularly over a great distance and with both feet. At first, it was hard to tell if A.J. was right-footed or left-footed, and for an American player that’s something that you will rarely see: a guy able to strike a ball with either foot with equal spin, equal pace and equal distance and ability. A.J. can do that. It’s one of his best attacking abilities: distribution and passing ability.”

Hard work

A.J. worked at his skills and never took a day off. When Bruce moved to San Diego to coach for Surf, he got lucky. He was assigned to coach Soares’ team.

The club practiced twice per week, and Bruce would offer optional specialty training sessions once or twice for the players. A.J. never missed one.

“I’d do functional training where we’d invite kids that wanted to come out and have an extra night of training,” says Bruce. “If Tuesday and Thursday were his team’s training night, Monday or Wednesday night we’d do something like switching the point of attack for midfielders and he was always there.”

While playing for Bruce, Soares got a chance as a 13 year old to play against the Women’s National Team that had just won the 1999 World Cup and the silver medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics. Soares stepped up to the challenge, outplaying everyone on the field. Bruce knew after the game that he had a special talent on his hands.

“We played against the Women’s national team with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, the superstar team. We played them down in San Diego at the Arco Center and he was superb,” said Bruce. “A.J. sprayed balls around. He was young. He was playing with U-14’s, and playing against the women’s national team – bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic than he was.

“Against them [the women’s national team] he picked them apart. Playing against people like Julie Foudy and those type of players, that’s not easy to do. You could see right there that he had vision. Not only did he have the ability to play that ball, but he could see the options. He had that ability to read the game and see two or three different options when a lot of players can only see one. It made him kind of special. “

All the extra hard work was paying off for A.J. as he progressed through Surf’s ranks. He started playing with the older teams. Soares had the ability and drive to compete with the older players.

Time for a change

Soares never played center back before going to Cal. He played very little defense at all, in fact. Bruce made him practice in the defense because he wanted A.J. to be a two-way player. Bruce knew Soares needed to be a two-way player if he was going to play college soccer or someday make it to the pros.

“I made him have to work on defensive qualities,” says Bruce. “I told him that when you get to college it wasn’t good enough to be just a great attacking player. You have to be a two-way player for the Kevin Grimes of the world.

“They have to account for the money they spend on players, and they want to get most for their money, so you have to make yourself as versatile as possible.”

All the hard work paid off for Soares. In his first game at Cal, Grimes asked Soares to move out of his preferred midfield position and into the heart of the defense. This wasn’t a cupcake of a game either, this was a game against the University of California Polytechnic State University. There were more than 8,000 fans there, but Soares, a freshman, never blinked.

“I was just happy to be on the field. I didn’t care at the time where I played,” says Soares. “I was just glad to be part of the group. It was a transition to move from being a goalscoring to being a defender; but I really like the physical play of the game, and I got to do more of it in the defense.”

It helped that the team was behind the freshman and understood his predicament. It’s not always easy to be moved around after playing one position for 11 years. Soares received good advice that he’s carried with him since.

“Someone told me, ‘it’s just soccer. It’s still the same game,’ and they are right. It’s still the same game,” says Soares.

It was a career-changing move for Soares, and it took time for him to adjust to the move.

“It was a work in progress for at least two seasons, not to say he didn’t perform well during those two seasons. He did very well,” says Grimes. “It was a lot of instruction, Q and A, a lot of video review of particular circumstances and situations that pop up during a game and where his positioning should be and the positioning of the other players in the back line. By the time he reached his junior year, he was pretty much in full stride and at that point it became tweaking more than heavy adjustments to coaching.”

The coaching and the move paid off. After four excellent years at Cal, Soares made the jump to the pros.

Learning from the best

New England Revolution manager Steve Nicol played more than 500 professional games as a defender. Nicol spent the majority of his career in England with Liverpool. From 1981 to 1995, Nicol wore the famed red jersey more than 300 times and helped the club continue its dominance during the 1980s.

Bruce sees the opportunity for Soares to play under the MLS’s longest-tenured coach at New England as the perfect situation for the 22-year old to grow and develop.

Bruce grew up in Scotland and bounced around the English game with the likes of Bolton, Leeds United and Preston North End before moving to the States to coach and play semi-pro ball. He understands the kind of game Nicol wants to play.

“[Nicol’s] going to like A.J.’s attributes because he follows in the way we [Bruce and Nicol] like to play the game, the way we were brought up, the kind of game we learned and liked,” says Bruce. “A.J. has a lot of the qualities of playing in the British type game.”

Bruce compares the way Soares reads the game with one of Nicol’s former teammates at Liverpool, Alan Hansen. Being compared to an Anfield great is mighty praise for the 22-year old.

“He’s not a grinder defender type of guy. He’s probably not the best 1-v-1 defender. He’s more like Alan Hansen who played for Liverpool at the same time as Steve Nicol,” says Bruce about Soares.

Hansen had the innate ability to read the game, anticipate and sniff out passes before they happened. All things that have been said about Soares.

“Alan Hansen, to me, was very much what A.J. is like. He wasn’t a guy that played with brute force and had crunching tackles. He was pretty cerebral about the way he played the game,” says Bruce. “He read the game. He was a very good group defender, wins the ball, and once he wins the ball, that’s when he’s in his element. He can quickly turn the team from defense to offense.”

“I think that’s what [New England] likes about [Soares]. He’s a soccer player. He won’t waste the ball that he has at his feet.”

Bruce isn’t alone in his belief that Soares found himself in a great spot for his career. Grimes feels the same way and sees the move to New England as a perfect fit for the former Golden Bear.

“I think when you’re playing under a guy like Steve Nicol, a legend back in the day playing for Liverpool, and he’s more than proven in the MLS that he’s a fantastic coach. So, A.J.’s going to be learning under one of the best in the business,” says Grimes. “If you’re A.J. you have to be loving this situation of being drafted by a team looking for some depth in the back and to be learning under the tutelage of a guy like Steve Nicol.”

Being a defender can be a difficult task with little recognition or reward. It’s the dirty job on the field. Soares is OK with that. He understands the position.

“As a defender, one mistake can cost you the game. You need players who aren’t going to make those mistakes,” says Soares. “The people who really know the game can appreciate the defenders. Who cares if you aren’t celebrated as a defender as long as you win the game.”

If Soares helps the Revolution win, no one will care about 2010 and the 50 goals. He may not get the highlights or the MVP award, but Nicol will appreciate the hard work and get a glimpse at what Grimes and Bruce both saw while coaching the southern California boy.

Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.

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