Photo by David Bernal/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
After a 2011 season in which A.J. Soares experienced some highs and lows and the growing pains commonly associated with a rookie season, he has made a speedy transition from rookie to leader, maturing into one of the best and most influential players on an improved New England Revolution squad.
Soares has been a rock in central defense for the Revolution for much of his sophomore campaign, and he has also helped lead a back four that is still getting accustomed to first-year head coach Jay Heaps' playing style and the several new players that have come along with him.
The 23-year-old defender seems more confident this season, too. Soares has held up well against the likes of Thierry Henry, Omar Cummings and Edson Buddle, to name a few, by using his combination of strength and positional awareness to limit opposing attackers' chances.
"Last year I thought he had an excellent season, and this year again he's kind of right where he left off and now he's getting a little bit better," Heaps said. "From our standpoint we want him to be a leader out there. You can see the players respond to him, and they communicate and he moves well. He's a player that as a coaching staff we like to lean on."
That is no problem for Soares, who welcomes the challenge of being a leader on the Revolution despite being two months into his second season as a professional. In fact, the former University of California defender points to being named captain during preseason as one of the moments that has stuck with him the most this year.
"That was a big thing for me," said Soares, who has played all but 30 minutes in the Revolution's eight games this year. "I really enjoyed that, and hopefully I could be captain of this team one day."
Soares has the attitude of a captain. With New England currently boasting a 3-5 record, the 6-foot centerback acknowledges the Revs needs to be more consistent in order to pull out results like the one they got in late March, when they went on the road and upset the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy.
In that game, the Revolution jumped out to a 3-0 lead before Robbie Keane pulled back a consolation goal for the Galaxy. It was the type of team outing Soares knows the Revolution are capable of, even if they have only shown it in bursts thus far this season.
"It starts with trying to come to every game with the same mentality that we had going into that LA game," said Soares. "Not resting on our laurels knowing that we got a couple wins, and we have to do everything we did leading up to those games.
"We felt a little desperate at the time to win games, and I think you got to always have that thought of winning this game is life or death. You kind of have to have that mentality whether you're winning every game or losing a lot of games, and you have to try and treat every game like it's the most important game of the season."
To be fair, where more consistent performances need to be had for New England is in the attack. The Revolution have scored just seven times this season, and that is a total that needs to improve if they wish to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The defense, on the other hand, has done its job for the most part. Soares, the rest of New England's back line and goalkeeper Matt Reis have been fairly consistent, surrendering 10 goals this season, a total that ties them for ninth best in the league.
Soares' improved play may be playing an integral part in New England's defensive outings, but he does not take the credit for it.
"Defensive performance has been good and that's (because) of the entire team," said Soares. "That's the forwards all the way back to the back line, especially Matt, he's been great. He's showing again, like he has for many seasons now, that he's the top couple goalkeepers in Major League Soccer.
"Starting off with him and the entire team working defensively together, that kind of is the basis of our defensive play. Everyone is doing a good job and hopefully we can put full games together and start winning more, a couple on the road here and there, and then just racking the points up."
Soares believes piling up points is possible due to the team's attitude. While he expresses a deep admiration and extreme gratitude to former Revolution head coach Steve Nicol, Soares sees New England as a more unified side this year compared to last.
"I think the team this year is much more together, so it's not overwhelming," said Soares. "Last year, there were a few games where we were never into it. This year, we're in every game. We're working hard, we're a tough team to play against."
New England will remain a tough club to play against if Soares continues to play at the level he is currently demonstrating, and that is something Heaps is surely counting on as Soares' role with the club grows. The season is long, however, and Soares still needs to prove he can play this well over an extended period of time to grab the attention of those who may still be overlooking him.
No problem, though, because as Soares admits, a lot has been learned from his rookie season.
"In my first year it was all new to me," said Soares. "This year, I feel like I've done everything at least one time so I can get ready for games, I know how to prepare better. That's the big difference."