With the way he looked and the way he leaped, John Trask knew AJ Cochran had a great shot at becoming a professional soccer player. The clincher for the University of Wisconsin head coach came on October 11, 2013.
The tall, strong defender scored twice late on as the Badgers overturned a 3-1 deficit in the last 18 minutes to beat the defending NCAA champions, the Indiana Hoosiers, 4-3. Both his goals came from corners. “More than ever it just showed his domination in the air, they had no answer for him,” Trask told HoustonDynamo.com. “He looked like a pro … it was time.”
Only three months later, Cochran arrived in MLS a month before his 21st birthday when the Dynamo selected him with their first-round pick (16th overall) in the 2014 SuperDraft. With the season two-thirds complete he has made 11 MLS appearances, including six starts, and last week took part in a U.S. Under-23 Men's National Team camp in the Bahamas.
His involvement gives the St. Louis native a chance of featuring in the U.S. team’s qualification campaign for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “Hopefully I put in a good enough performance to get called back,” he said.
“It was really nice to get the call for the first time this year and be with the 23s and start the process for the Olympics and just be one of the guys they’re looking at. I feel honored, it’s awesome.”
Cochran joined up with the U.S. after the Dynamo’s win over D.C. United on August 3 and started in a 5-1 win three days later against the Bahamas senior team in Nassau, playing 63 minutes. “Earlier on in the season I got called into the first camp but we were kind of right in the middle of the season and at that time I think we had a couple of center backs that were hurt, so decided to stay with the Dynamo and miss that camp. I was hoping I would get another call in and it happened and I’m very grateful I did,” he said.
Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear believes the trip will help Cochran’s development. “He had a good experience, played a good game I think for them, I’m sure he’s happy to be part oft that group. He’s still young enough, it’s a good opportunity,” he said. “[Coach] Tab Ramos in the reports has been pretty kind with his words to him so I think it’s a great experience for him.”
Cochran is fondly remembered in Wisconsin, where he spent three years and was named 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. At 6-foot-3 and 200-odd pounds, big is right. Trask recalled a conversation he once had with another coach, who looked at Cochran’s physique and asked: “‘Are you sure he’s a soccer player?’ I think he saw a tight end,” said Trask, a former assistant coach for three MLS clubs.
“It’s not often we have a 6 foot, 3 inch defender who’s got a 30-inch vertical,” he added, referring to Cochran’s jumping ability, which makes him a powerful and decisive aerial force. “I called him a 20x20 guy. Any ball that was 20 yards from him, he was going to win it.”
Trask was pleased when Cochran landed in Houston. “I believe in what the Dynamo does for young players, he’s in the perfect place,” he said. When they talked about two-and-a-half months ago, Trask reminded the defender to learn from his teammates not only on the field, but from how they interact off the pitch. “I’ve always felt the Dynamo is a very tight group,” he said. “[I told AJ] you know what a good locker room looks like—don’t think that’s the case in every locker room.”
Confident but level-headed, Cochran is aware he still has plenty of work ahead of him if he is to become a regular starter. He is adjusting to the length of the MLS season: the Dynamo host the Philadelphia Union on Friday at BBVA Compass Stadium (8 p.m. CT; TICKETS) in their 23rd match of the 34-game regular campaign.
“It’s definitely a change, how long the season is. But I quite like it. It’s going good, the season’s flying by, we’ve got important games left and going to make a bit of a run here towards the playoffs. I’m very excited to see where this team is headed,” he said.
“Being a rookie it’s pretty much all about learning and there’s three or four great other center backs on this team, all veterans and it’s good to be there and kind of see how everything works, see how they play and listen to the coach’s responses in games and video and just continuing to learn.
“Right now we’ve got a bit of a road ahead of us but we’re making improvements, these last few games. We got unlucky versus Seattle but I know the guys are all really excited for this weekend to play Philly and get the result.”
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.