KENYA BROWN - Monday, August 31, 2015
After losing out on the MLS Cup last year, it is silverware that is driving American defender A.J. Soares' determination to win with Viking FK in Norway.
After playing his last game for the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final last season, the California native was looking to make the move to the next level in his professional soccer career. Reports towards the end of 2014 said he was on his way to Hellas Verona in Italy's Serie A. However, various stories later on stated that the deal had hit some snags before eventually falling through. Speculation had it that the deal collapsed due to an alleged clause in Verona and Mexico defender Rafael Marquez's contract, stating that he would receive a "significant sum of money" if the team signed another defender.
It has been several months after the fiasco with Verona, and to this day Soares, 26, still has no idea as to why the deal fell through with the Italian side.
"To tell you the truth I am not sure exactly sure why I didn't end up at Verona because it was not a question of completing the deal with them," he told Yanks Abroad. "I am not going to go into details on what exactly happened during January when things went wrong but in terms of the deal, it was signed by the club and myself in October, way before people knew about it. I even still have a copy of the contract signed by all parties."
As news spread about the failed deal with Verona, there were rumblings that Soares could return to the Revs as they retained his rights. However, he would remain in Europe. He trained for a few days with Stabaek and head coach Bob Bradley before hopping on a plane to La Manga, Spain, to link up with Viking for a tryout. The tryout worked out well and in February Soares signed an 18-month contract with the eight-time league champions.
The six-foot tall defender has been with the Stavanger-based team for a few months now and he seems to be not only very happy with his situation with the team, but also with life in southwest Norway.
"Life in Stavanger has been great. Norway is an easy place to live and it is well organized so the transition was quick, and Stavanger is a very international town because of the oil industry which makes it nice and interesting," said Soares.
"The adjustment in football has been good. I have played very well when healthy and I'm happy with my impact on the team and helping to push the club up the table after a rough couple of years for them."
Since signing with Viking, Soares has become an integral part to the team's back line as the team currently sits in third place in the standings compared with their tenth place finish last season. The team's defense has also improved a great deal as they have only allowed 25 total goals so far this season compared with 42 goals last season.
When asked what he attributes to the team's improvement this season with the addition of him in the defense, Soares said confidence was the key.
"I think I have been able to give the players confidence because I am used to playing in front of a lot of people and in pressure games because believe it or not the attendances and atmosphere in MLS are pretty good regardless of what anybody says," he said. "A lot of the players here feel the pressure to perform because they are looking for transfers and have been told that they are expected to be these great players. So I think something I can do is just put everyone at ease and try to get the team to have fun and enjoy the football and it leads to us winning and being confident and we play the best football in Norway without a doubt."
Despite the success of the team, which is in the second qualifying spot for the UEFA Europa League and the semifinals of the Norwegian Cup, injuries, for the first time, have hampered the former University of California, Berkeley co-captain's progress with the team. Prior to the start of the league season, Soares went down with a knee injury in training that put him out of action for six to eight weeks. After making his return to the first team he suffered a concussion in a June 28 game against Sarpsborg 08.
To say that Soares would prefer to be on the field with his teammates is an understatement, but he also believes he can contribute to their campaign even while he is recovering from his latest setback.
"It's tough because they are my first actual injuries but in the end of the day they still aren't very serious, just a few weeks each. But I try to impact the team and lead even when I'm not playing. I figure I need to earn my paycheck somehow so I still participate and do everything I would normally do other than play in the games," he said.
As the Tippeligaen season enters its final stretch of games, Soares only has one thing on his mind - silverware. Suffering the defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Galaxy at last year's MLS Cup final can light a fire in a player when he has been so close to success. Soares is no different. So any goals that he may have are put to the side as he is more focused on team success rather than personal accolades.
"I am confident with who I am as a player and the people in Europe have given me a lot of respect so far which has been nice so I don't have any personal goal other than winning. Winning is the ultimate thing in football, it's not enough to just play and be okay with losing," he said.
As for aspirations for one day playing for the U.S. national team, especially after its setback at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Soares believes his performances on the field will say enough as to whether he gets a call up or not.
"Everybody knows what they're getting with me and it's different than the 6'4" centerback that you see so many places. My game is more about overall team impact and it's been great with my club teams so far and I am happy with that," he said.