COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Axel Sjoberg, the tallest defender in MLS, may draw attention merely by virtue of his size.
But his play on the field in his second season with the Colorado Rapids is drawing plenty of attention, too.
Both literally and figuratively, the 6-foot-7 Swede has been a big part of a Rapids defense which has conceded the fewest goals in MLS (9) through 13 games this season. He set another milestone last weekend, tallying his first career goal in MLS with the game winner in a 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders.
“I’d been waiting for quite some time,” Sjoberg said of the goal. “It was great to get it.”
It’s the latest step in a long soccer journey for the 25-year-old, who began playing soccer at the age of four with hometown club Helenelunds IK before moving on to the academy system of Djurgardens IF of the Swedish first division. After leaving Djurgarden for a brief stint with Sollentuna FF of Sweden’s Division 2 in 2010, Sjoberg found himself at a crossroads.
He explained, “I wanted to continue getting my education while playing at the same time. In Sweden, that’s not really an option with club soccer, growing up through the youth system. I finished high school and didn’t get a contract with the first team when I was 18, which was a disappointment. The decision was soccer or school. Do you put soccer on the shelf or do you continue? My dad asked me: ‘What about college [in the US]?’ I found it to be a great opportunity.”
He eventually landed at Marquette University, where he earned two team MVP awards and was named as one of the "10 best defenders in college" soccer by TopDrawerSoccer.com. After earning an invite to the MLS SuperDraft combine in 2015, he put on a display which impressed Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni, who saw Sjoberg’s size as a backline “presence” and not a detriment.
Sjoberg was likewise grateful for the faith the Rapids displayed in drafting him, even if it meant joining a team that had finished dead last in the Western Conference race in 2014.
“It was my idea to play in MLS all along,” he said. “I knew [the Rapids] had a tough 2014, but when I met with the coaching staff I knew what they wanted to do, especially defensively. I saw it a great opportunity.”
What he’s done with that opportunity since joining the team has earned him both respect and praise from the coaching staff in Colorado.
“I think he’s very professional in the way he handles himself, both on and off the field,” Rapids assistant head coach John Spencer said. “When he’s in there he’s very dialed in and he’s been very difficult to play against. A lot of the strikers in this league will testify to that.”
Who’s the hardest to defend in MLS? For Sjoberg, it’s a matter of situation.
On set pieces, one player stood out hands down.
“[Didier] Drogba was very good,” Sjoberg said. “He’s very strong and his timing is impeccable.”
But in the open field, he noted that compact-but-speedy forwards can be a handful.
“Joao Plata, [David] Villa, and [Sebastian] Giovinco. All these guys are good with the ball and explosive; quick on the turn,” he explained. “That poses a challenge as a big guy but I’ve worked on that my entire career. So far in MLS, I think I’ve done a good job of showing I can handle those guys.”
His time in Colorado hasn’t been without its trials, however. After beginning his rookie campaign with nine starts in the Rapids’ first 14 games of 2015, a nagging knee injury at the midway point and another last place finish for the Rapids made the last part of the season a tough pill to swallow for Sjoberg.
“It was very hard for me and for the team,” he explained. “We could’ve pushed for the playoffs, but we weren’t really quite there. It wasn’t a finished product.”
But fast forward to the present, and a healthy Sjoberg has already posted 11 starts in the center of a Rapids defense which has shown to be among the league’s best, helping Colorado vault atop the Supporters' Shield standings.
“It’s great,” he said of the turnaround. “We’re very happy with the progress so far but when you do well, you’ve got to work even harder.”