There are many who decry the existence of college soccer as a development path for professional soccer players in the United States.
Though it's clearly not for everyone, Axel Sjoberg is a perfect example of how NCAA soccer can revive a career on the brink. If it weren’t for the curious prevalence of major American collegiate athletics, the Colorado Rapids likely wouldn’t have their defensive anchor, and likely wouldn’t be in the midst of a breathtaking turnaround in 2016.
Compared with other countries, the U.S. is unique in the importance it places on college sports and the resources it devotes to them. For Sjoberg, that factor offered him a second chance in his soccer career.
At 18, Sjoberg was not offered a professional contract by Stockholm-based Djurgarden, the club he had represented since he was 7 years old. If he had stayed in Europe, he would have faced an uncertain future.
“The difference between Europe and the U.S. is [in Europe] either you really go all out for soccer, or you go to university,” Sjoberg told Goal USA. "I was at a crossroads. I didn’t really know what to do because I still thought I had more potential to explore in soccer.”
As it turned out, there was an unlikely place Sjoberg would get a chance to explore that potential: Marquette University in Milwaukee.
The Swede had never really considered the possibility of living in the U.S. before, but when an agency for Swedish athletes connected him to the Wisconsin college, he took a leap of faith.
“It was really something that just came up out of the blue,” Sjoberg said.
Sjoberg took advantage of his collegiate opportunity, using his 6-foot-7 frame to score eight goals as a defender his redshirt freshman season, earning him national attention and reigniting the dream he had in Sweden: a career as a pro soccer player.
After four years at Marquette, the Rapids made Sjoberg the 14th overall pick of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft. The Swede’s leap of faith had paid off.
Making it to MLS was one thing, but Sjoberg struggled to establish himself in an injury-hit rookie campaign. A series of minor injuries limited him to just 14 appearances, while the Rapids finished the season last in the Western Conference.
It’s safe to say that 2016 has been a 180-degree turnaround, both for Sjoberg and the Rapids.
The big Swede has stayed healthy and anchored Colorado’s back line, starting all but two of the club’s games and ranking second among all MLS players in both clearances and headed clearances, while chipping in two goals and an assist.
Sjoberg has been a part of the league’s stingiest defense. The Rapids have allowed an MLS-low 27 goals in 30 games, one of the major reasons why they already have 14 more points than they did in 2015 with four games still to play in the regular season.
“I think we have come together more as a team than we did last year,” Sjoberg said. “We have a similar style of play, but we found our identity more so than we did last year.”
Adding veterans like Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard has no doubt helped, but with the former not arriving until midseason and the latter injured for most of the past four months, Sjoberg’s development has been a massive factor.
Part of that development has come from Sjoberg learning to utilize his massive frame to his advantage, while minimizing the negative effects that come along with being an abnormally tall soccer player.
"There aren’t many people my height out there,” said Sjoberg, who is the league’s tallest outfield player.
“You’re going to win a lot of battles in the air, you’re a big body back there, you take up a lot of space, it’s easier to block shots, get in people’s way,” Sjoberg said of the benefits of his stature. “Hopefully when they see me they don’t want to hit the ball into my area.”
There are also some downsides, of course.
“You deal with a lot of small, quick forwards and that’s something I’ve have to battle through the entirety of my career,” Sjoberg said. “If you get flat-footed against a small quick guy, they got you — you’re screwed.
“It’s about being proactive in your defending and being one step ahead, and seeing the play develop and positioning your body so you can use your frame to your advantage.”
Sjoberg’s continued mastery of his own stature has helped the Rapids clinch a playoff berth with four games to spare. After such a dismal 2015, in many ways this season is already a success for the Rapids no matter what else happens.
However, Sjoberg says the team doesn't necessarily see it that way.
“For people outside of our group looking in, I think they already view the season as a success. But if you ask anyone in our locker room, including myself, then we have so much more to give,” Sjoberg said. “It was a milestone for us reaching the playoffs, we celebrated after the game, but we were looking at each other like, ‘This is not it — we want way more.’”
READ MORE FROM GOAL USA'S MLS SPOTLIGHT SERIES: