COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, second-year center back Axel Sjoberg has undoubtedly been a huge part of the Colorado Rapids’ defense, both literally and figuratively.
But it’s not just due to his physical attributes. With 22 starts on a team which has allowed a league-low 20 goals all season, the 25-year-old Swedish expatriate has put himself firmly in the Defender of the Year discussion and will look to solidify that challenge in a Rocky Mountain Cup showdown with Real Salt Lake on Friday (8 pm ET; UniMás in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).
MLSsoccer.com caught up with Sjoberg last month to figure out what it took to elevate his game to such heights.
Never the runt
Sjoberg is the second oldest of five children, but he was never the shortest growing up. He started playing soccer at the age of three in order to be with his older brother, who started playing soccer with a youth academy at the age of five. By the age of six, Axel was playing with children a full age group above him.
“I’ve always been very tall,” he recalled. “I was probably bigger than [the older children], at least the same size. I’ve always been the big guy out there.”
What’s in a name?
The Swedish language presents some difficult sounds for native English speakers, and Sjoberg’s name is no exception.
So how exactly do you pronounce it?
“We’ve tried to streamline it, so I would say the best anglicized version is 'SHOE-burg,'” Sjoberg explained. “I think that’s the closest and easiest. It doesn’t really translate well, that’s just how the languages work. But in Sweden, it’s a very common name. It means “Lake Mountain.”
Perhaps because of the difficulty it takes in pronouncing his last name, Sjoberg has earned himself a variety of nicknames from both teammates and fans since joining the Rapids as a rookie last season. He’s been referred to as “Mountain Man” and “Big Ax,” references to his sizable presence on the Rapids’ backline.
He’s also come up with some of his own. Alongside 6-foot-5 Bobby Burling and 6-foot-6 Joseph Greenspan (currently on loan with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks), Sjoberg has dubbed the Rapids’ towering group of center defenders “The Tree Musketeers.”
Turning disappointment into success
Turning his passion into a profession was always a dream for Sjoberg. But reality hit him hard when he wasn’t offered a senior contract by Djurgardens, the club which he spent his time as a youth academy player.
That missed opportunity led to a new one, as his father suggested college in America as a different path. Sjoberg would earn a degree, and be drafted into MLS.
“That was the toughest, but ultimately it got me to college and where I am today,” he said.
Behind enemy lines
If fate had gone a different way, Axel Sjoberg might've found himself on the other side of the Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry. Aside from Colorado, Real Salt Lake were one of the MLS teams which showed interest in the big Swede during the 2015 MLS Combine.
“I wouldn’t say it means too much, because it was only a sitdown meeting,” he recalls of the encounter with the RSL brass. “Sometimes I think about it a little bit, but it was only a meeting so it’s not that personal.”
But they weren’t the only ones. In fact, Sjoberg fully expected to go to Columbus before Crew SC and the Rapids swapped picks in 2015.
“The team I talked to the most was Columbus,” he added. “I thought I was going there until the very last moment.”
The next Mats Sundin?
Soccer wasn’t Sjoberg’s only sporting passion growing up. Until the age of 15, he participated in Sweden’s other national pastime: hockey.
Explained Sjoberg, “It came down to going to hockey route or the soccer route. My dad was a proponent for hockey. I think I could’ve gone pro. Statistically, hockey players are more likely to make the NHL, especially if you’re from Sweden.”
While most people in Sweden and Colorado recognize Peter Forsberg as their hockey idol, Sjoberg had a different one growing up.
“My favorite athlete growing up was Mats Sundin,” he said. “Everyone in Sweden loves Peter Forsberg. But I was more of a Sundin guy, because he was a big center, just like I was, and he played in the same community that I was from.”
If soccer hadn't worked out, Sjoberg would’ve probably found himself on Wall Street after college, having majored in finance at Marquette University. While in college, he was selected to be a part of Marquette's highly regarded Applied Investment Management (AIM) Program and was awarded the finance department’s Outstanding Senior Award from the College of Business Administration.
“All of my college classmates went onto Wall Street or down to Chicago working in big investment banks,” Sjoberg said. “That would’ve been me. But I’m glad I got into soccer. The working hours are way better.”
Athlete and artist
Sjoberg is a jack of all trades outside of soccer, dabbling in a variety of hobbies and interests. His latest venture is as a photographer, but he also moonlights as a musician.
“I also played piano growing up, so I’m looking into buying a keyboard so I can jam a little bit,” he said.
And when he’s not doing that? He’s also a home chef, where he cooks traditional Swedish dishes, something he misses about his home country.
“I do like to cook,” he said. “My girlfriend and I like to cook food during our free time.”
Flirting with European football
Prior to the MLS SuperDraft, Sjoberg was afforded a brief 10-week trial with Czech first-division club SK Sigma Olomouc. Sjoberg impressed with their B team, scoring two goals in three games and earning an offer.
“They were really interested and offered me a contract, so I had that in my back pocket,” he recalled.
While he didn’t see the field during Colorado’s wintry “SnowClasico 2” match at home against the New York Red Bulls earlier this season, Sjoberg has taken part in plenty of snowy preseason practice sessions at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
But having previously played during bitter winters in his home country and later in Canada with the Thunder Bay Chill of the PDL, he’s seen more than his fair share of cold-weather action.
“Canada was the coldest on average, but not for a single game,” he explained. “I would have to say for a single game, my coldest game was in Sweden, because I spent the winters there. But it’s not nothing [in Colorado]. It’s still cold.”
This article originally ran on July 22, 2016. It was updated on August 25, 2016.
Marco Cummings covers the Rapids for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.