Gateway to MLS: Houston Dynamo defender AJ Cochran is the latest in a long line of St. Louis-area soccer products

Dynamo rookie follows the path of teammates Brad Davis, Will Bruin from St. Louis to Houston

The nearest MLS club is 250 miles away but St Louis can still claim to be one of the most influential cities in American soccer.

U.S. internationals including Tim Ream, Pat Noonan, Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston and the Dynamo's Brad Davis and Will Bruin grew up in the area. Traveling back into the distant past, six of the U.S. roster from the 1950 World Cup played their club soccer in a region that is one of the sport's original hotbeds.

On January 16 this year, Bruin, Davis and assistant coach Ralston were joined in Houston by another native of the Show Me State when the Dynamo selected AJ Cochran in the first round (16th overall) of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. Less than three months later, the center back became the latest St. Louisan to appear in the league.

With Eric Brunner sidelined by injury, the 21-year-old came off the substitutes' bench against FC Dallas after David Horst was sent off then started in his place last Saturday against the New England Revolution. Horst is now back from suspension, giving head coach Dominic Kinnear a decision to make at the heart of the defense for this Saturday's trip to the Philadelphia Union (3 p.m. CT, CSN Plus). Regardless of the lineup at PPL Park, Cochran has already shown that he is a viable option with a maturity that belies his inexperience.

Cochran's MLS bow came after impressive displays in training that gave the coaching staff belief that the rookie could handle the big stage. And coming on to make your debut against local rivals with the team losing and down a man certainly qualifies as a pressure situation.

"We didn't really see him a whole lot until the [MLS] Combine, then when we saw him in preseason, you sit back and try and see what you have on your hands here," said Kinnear. "He's very confident, he doesn't seem to get rattled. I think he's a competitive kid, you can obviously tell that right away; a real nice left foot; he doesn't look overawed by anything. In the Dallas game he wanted the ball, he wanted to take part. And I think he had a good game last week, too."

The Dynamo fell 2-0 in Foxborough but Cochran said the match was a valuable step in his development. "The speed of play's fast out there and being a center back you've got to be strong, you've got to make sure you play simple balls and communicate with your back line. Just play hard," he told HoustonDynamo.com.

Among the 19 first-round picks in January, Cochran is one of only four players to have started an MLS match so far this year. He is slightly surprised that his first-team chance came so soon: "A little bit. I came in and obviously wanted to show my best in training and wait for that opportunity. I knew coming in that I wasn't going to start, it's hard for a rookie to start in this league. But the injuries we've had and the red card that David got, the opportunity was there. I tried to take that opportunity and do the best with it."

Born in St. Louis, the imposing 6-foot 3-inch defender spent three seasons at the University of Wisconsin and was named Big Ten Defender of the Year in 2013. He was eager to join the professional ranks as soon as possible and spent last year playing for two PDL sides, the Michigan Bucks and K-W United of Ontario, Canada.

"I just wanted to come and play with the pros, I knew that playing with pros every day was going to make me better. I'm not saying that the college level was bad or anything, just that this is higher, that much better, and being out here with all these guys who've been in the league for a while is hopefully making my game that much better," he said.

Cochran went to the same St. Louis high school as San Jose Earthquakes defender Brandon Barklage and former Columbus Crew and Vancouver Whitecaps forward Tom Heinemann. Before college he polished his skills at the renowned Scott Gallagher club, which counts Bruin and Davis among its alumni.

"For the last 20-30 years they've always produced players who go into the pros, good trainers, good coaches. No MLS team yet—but we've got good players who come out of St. Louis," said Cochran. He knew Bruin a little before joining the Dynamo but had not met Davis.

"Will and Brad went to two high schools right next to mine. We were all in the same division, all rivals," he said. After following the pair's careers keenly and hoping one day to emulate them by making it to MLS, Cochran finds himself not just a fellow professional, but a teammate.

"You watch them from back when they were in high school all the way up," he said. "You follow their careers and you hope one day you can step on the field with them." That hope was realized this month. Cochran's challenge now is to continue his progress and turn "one day" into "every week".

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.