BY ADAM SERRANO
The college ranks have filled Major League Soccer with several young central defenders ripe with potential in recent years, with the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Ike Opara and Tim Ream making the smooth transition from college to the pros.
University of California defender A.J. Soares could be the next to join that list. The cerebral yet extremely physical defender has quickly put himself on the national map with his steady play for Cal.
The senior central defender enters the 2010 season after very successful 2009 for the Golden Bears. In 2009, Soares was the club's defensive MVP and a first team All-Pac-10 selection. After earning several accolades last season, the Cal co-captain has once again put himself in the spotlight after being named a second team preseason All-American by the College Soccer News.
One reason for the development of hard-nosed defender has been the tutelage of head coach Kevin Grimes. During Grimes' 10 years in charge, Cal has developed numerous players who have become key contributors for their MLS sides including Toronto FC's Stefan Frei, Andrew Jacobson of the Philadelphia Union and Calen Carr of the Chicago Fire. Soares admits that the program that Grimes has created at Berkeley has been integral in not only his development on the field, but also off the field.
"He teaches players to become professionals whether or not you're actually going to be a professional or not," said Soares. "Our program is run like a professional team, the way that we train daily and have frequent team meetings, there's a discipline that he expects the guys to stick to and that he enforces, which allows guys to transition immediately into pro teams."
The Golden Bears enter the 2010 season after an extremely disappointing 2009 that saw the team fall from preseason title contenders to failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. Soares' Golden Bears face a year of transition after losing offensive MVP forward Andrew Wiedeman, who skipped his senior season to join the MLS SuperDraft. Coming into this transition period, the team has sought to create a united group going into a difficult Pac-10 schedule.
"This year, we worked very hard during the summer and the camaraderie and unity of the guys is as high as it has ever been," said Soares. "We feel that we can win any game on our schedule and losing any game is a disappointment so with those high expectations, we think that we will be able to get some positive results."
Soares and the Golden Bears will begin the season in the state of Indiana taking part in the adidas/IU tournament where they will take on No.21 ranked Indiana on Friday and then No.18 ranked Notre Dame on Sunday. Although the year promises to be tough one for the Golden Bears, their co-captain is optimistic that special things can happen in 2010.
"We have inconsistently over the past few years produced some very good results and obviously last season was a step back," said Soares. "But if Cal can continue with the structure that we have under Coach Grimes, we have the potential to become a top program running with Maryland and Virginia because in Berkeley we have an athletic program like nowhere I've ever seen."
Even with the final chapter of his successful college career yet to be written, the young defender has put himself in contention to be a high selection in what will be an extremely deep 2011 MLS SuperDraft class. He drew attention from MLS scouts after the 2009 season, but wound up returning to Cal for one more season.
This success for Soares comes at a time when college defenders are considered of high value to MLS sides after the recent MLS success of high profile college defenders like Ream and Gonzalez. Coupled with the evolving state of the United States back-line for the 2014 World Cup cycle, the defender believes that he can have a serious impact, both professionally and internationally.
"It's a testament to the college game that these defenders are being developed in college because college is a physical game and that prepares defenders for a physical league like MLS," said Soares. "It gives me confidence because I know that I am at that level and I definitely see myself in those shoes in the near future."