Like so many other collegiate players across the nation, the glittering career of A.J. Soares is coming to a close this fall. The 22-year-old senior defender at the University of California has crafted an impressive four-year career with the Golden Bears.
However, his college career could have very easily turned out different. Soares entered Cal as an attacking player, but head coach Kevin Grimes saw potential in the freshman as a central defender.
“We felt it was worth the risk to try him freshman year and see what he could do, and certainly he’s had a great four years there,” Grimes said. “He had great size and strength, and as an attacking player in club soccer, obviously you have a skill set that would also make you a very good center back."
Since then, Soares has grown into his defensive role and excelled along the Cal back line. An imposing physical presence, his evolving leadership and defensive skills on the field were rewarded this year with the 2010 Pac-10 Defender of the Year honor.
He’s also discovered a love for defending.
“There’s nothing that I love more than going out there and making a stop on a play,” the San Diego-area native said. “To me, that’s more satisfying than scoring a goal.”
The combination of Soares in defense and junior goalkeeper David Bingham in net is one of many reasons Cal has enjoyed a successful 2010. With the duo starting every game of the season – to this point – Cal has conceded only 14 goals during the regular season, good for the 11th best goals-against average in the nation.
But what has made this season particularly enjoyable for Soares is how much fun he has out on the field.
“I have all my best friends on the field with me and that’s something I really enjoyed this season,” he said. “I’m proud of our group, everything we’ve done so far. This season for me has been so much fun and I think that’s contributing to why we play so well.”
Soares credited his evolution and improvement as a player over the course of four years to his coach. Grimes, a defender with the US national team and various pro clubs during the late 1980s and into the early '90s, has mastered the art, according to his current protégé.
“He knows every detail of defense like you can’t imagine, and I’ve just tried to absorb as much of that as I could,” Soares said of his coach. “Over the four years, I’ve taken a lot from him.”
Even with the sage wisdom of an experienced coach like Grimes, putting it together on the field is another asking. Not only has Soares managed to excel on the field, he’s missed only two games his entire career, playing in 76 of 78 possible games since 2007. Grimes also feels that the defender really helped himself by staying all four years.
“The fact that he stayed in school and decided to play another year of college was a great decision for him,” Grimes said. “We’re real happy he stayed four years; I think it’s been great for the final pieces of his puzzle to be complete.”
While the time Soares has put in over the course of his collegiate career continues to pay off, he has at least one game left. It will be one of the biggest tests of the last four years, traveling to Ohio to take on No. 3 seed Akron. Cal isn't scared, however, as they get ready to make the trip Thursday morning for Saturday’s clash.
“We’re really confident going into the game,” Soares said. “We’re a really difficult team to play.”
Even with that high level of confidence, a big game from Soares is vital in shutting down Akron, which boasts one of the best attacks in the nation. A win Saturday would surely be up there in achievement for the defender – to go with a couple of Pac-10 titles and seven wins over Stanford.
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