Rookie Report: Soares excels at center back for Revs

There will be no champagne for the New England Revolution this season. Downtown Boston will have to wait for its first soccer-related duck boat parade.

When a season is so mired in disappointment, it’s easy not to notice the silver lining. But amidst winless streaks this summer of seven and nine games, and nine one-goal losses on the season, the Revs have found a center back of the future in rookie AJ Soares.

According to Soares, who was taken with the sixth pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, there was never a doubt he’d find himself in the thick of the action.

“I expected it,” said the San Diego native. “I knew I’d work my butt off to get on the field from the moment I got here. It was my personal goal to get into the squad. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity and be in a place where the coaching staff trusts me. And I’ve learned a lot from being thrown into the fire. It’s been up and down this season, and of course we wish we had some better results. But even without the results, this year has been a positive experience for me.”

Not the tallest or the strongest, Soares is still one of the league’s best young aerial threats and readers of the game, and has cemented his spot in the center of the Revolution defense for the foreseeable future. The 22 year-old graduate of the University of California has logged more minutes this season, 2,464, — and picked up more red cards (two)— than any other rookie.

Soares cracked the starting lineup on opening day, and until last week’s trip to Chicago when he was sidelined with a muscle strain, had played the full 90 in every match this season in which he didn’t receive a red card or serve a subsequent suspension.

The coaching staff in New England are certainly pleased with their acquisition.

“It’s always tough for a rookie when he comes in and the team isn’t doing well,” Revolution assistant coach Stephen Myles said. “It’s easy for that rookie to disappear. But we’ve been delighted with him. He’s come into a league with strikers who a lot of the time are internationals. They are crafty and quick, and know when to come for ball and when to get into space. He’s had to learn when to step and when not to and at this level it’s something you have to learn quickly. Every week he improves and that’s all we can ask.”

Mike Levitt's Rookie of the Year Rankings

Player Comment

1. Perry Kitchen

D.C. United

Kitchen keeps piling up the minutes as DC searches for a playoff spot. The 19-year old continues to shine and should find himself in his first MLS Cup playoffs in his first professional season.

2. C.J. Sapong

Sporting Kansas City

The bottom line is that Sapong has started in 10 of Sporting’s 11 wins this season as the lone striker in Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3. He has played in every SKC game this season and leads all rookies in points (four goals, five assists). Considering the other notable strike options at the coach’s disposal, Sapong is obviously doing something right as Kansas City now sits atop the Eastern Conference.

3. A.J. Soares

New England Revolution

True, the Revolution have had a dismal season. But it is often on struggling teams in transition that rookies get quality minutes, and this is another example of the trend. Either way, it is impossible to disregard the fact that Soares leads all rookies in minutes played.

4. Jalil Anibaba

Chicago Fire

The Fire have been on a tear, winning five of their last seven games, and Anibaba continues to be a major contributor, racking up over 2,000 minutes played so far this season.

The Revolution have only won twice since mid-May and sit bottom of the Eastern Conference with three games remaining. They are one of just three teams this season who's failed to record back to-back wins. Things weren’t supposed to turn out this way for a club that has made it to four MLS Cup Finals since 2002. But Soares’ performances have shown that the future holds promise with the young defender leading the back line.

The rookie is convinced that his decision to remain at Cal for his senior year was decisive in his stepping immediately into a starting role — especially in a defense that has seen as much action as New England’s. While it’s common for players to leave school early for the MLS draft, Soares, who was the first senior taken this past year, took the extra collegiate season to refine his leadership abilities.

“I played every game in college since my freshman season, and staying that last year was important,” said Soares, who was a co-captain and roommate on that team with Seattle’s Servando Carrasco. The two — Soares calls Carrasco his “brother” — have kept in touch, helping each other deal with the grind of their first pro season.

“That was our team. It was on my shoulders in terms of leadership, responsibility, and getting guys organized," Soares continued. "Maybe my game was at the level already, but I’m glad I stayed because being the main guy teaches you that role.”

Veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis, who holds nearly every Revolution ‘keeper record in his nine years with the club, developed an instant relationship with his defender. At first, it was based on their both being “rad dudes” from Southern California (Reis went to UCLA), but their understanding quickly evolved as Soares established himself as a mainstay both in the lineup and the locker room.

“He’s definitely stepped in and made the position his own,” said Reis, who has still managed five shutouts this year, despite the team mustering only five wins. "Anybody that can hold down a starting job as a rookie is doing a lot of good things. He reminds me a lot of Michael Parkhurst [US international currently playing in Denmark who won the 2005 MLS Rookie of the Year with the Revolution]. Neither of them is the biggest guy, but they win balls in the air and don’t get bullied. For AJ to keep putting in good performances week after week is something you don’t often see.”