Tell men’s soccer head coach John Trask that he has 13 seniors on his roster, and he might beg to differ, not that he’s the begging type. Trask would say that no matter what’s on the official roster, he has 14, not 13, seniors on the squad.
Junior defenseman AJ Cochran is that 14th senior.
“When we meet with our sports psychologist, we usually include AJ with the 13 [seniors] because of his importance with this team,” Trask said after the Badgers defeated UW-Green Bay 1-0 in their final exhibition match of the preseason last week.
Being labeled the team’s 14th senior is a title that the St. Louis native not only is fine with; it’s one that he welcomes.
“I like to think of myself as the 14th senior,” Cochran said. “I think a bunch of the seniors respect me and I’m going to listen to them and hopefully they’re going to listen to me. I’ve earned a lot of respect from the guys on this team and I hope to continue to be a leader and good things will come off of it.”
The soccer world certainly expects Cochran’s leadership and play on the field will lead to good things this season as the 6-foot-3 junior seems to amass preseason honors weekly. Last week he was named a third-team preseason All-American by College Soccer News and before that, TopDrawerSoccer.com gave him the same honor. Cochran was first-team All-Big Ten in 2012, a unanimous selection to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team in 2011 and was named to the all-tournament team at the UIC Soccer Classic in 2011.
“[The preseason awards] keep making me want more, honestly,” Cochran said. “Preseason awards are one thing but really it’s what matters at the end of the season. You can get as many awards as you want in the beginning of the season but if you don’t have a good season then all of those awards are nothing.”
Coming from Christian Brothers College High School, Cochran was ranked No. 4 in the Heartland region and No. 59 in the nation by TopDrawerSoccer.com. The decision to come to Madison was quite simple for the then-high school senior.
“I put a lot of trust in coach Trask,” Cochran said. “He’s one of the best coaches in the country, and when I came up and visited I immediately fell in love and knew that I didn’t need to visit another school.”
In the two seasons since, Cochran has started all but one game for the Badgers, turning him into one of the most experienced players on the team, which says a lot, given the senior class on this roster.
What has further helped Cochran in his climb to be one of the more experienced members of this team has been his training with the US U-20 Men’s National Team in the off-season. That experience and his work with the U-18 team before that has not only enhanced Cochran’s play on the field but also his approach to the game and how he handles himself away from it.
“His off-the-field habits in terms of eating, taking care of himself and treating himself like a pro are impressive,” Trask said of Cochran. “We work with guys like him, guys who have a future in this after college, on all parts of his development and the national team has definitely helped [in that regard].”
“He’s brought back a little bit of professionalism,” senior captain Chris Prince said. “Training with the national team gives him that once in a lifetime experience where he now knows how the game should be played and how people should play the game, so he has just as much experience as [the seniors], if not more.”
Cochran recognizes the opportunities that have come his way through playing on the national team and made sure to pick the brains of some of the greatest players his age from across the country. Wil Trapp and Luis Gil, both on the U-20 roster during this summer’s 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup, had tremendous impact on Cochran and taught him things that he has since brought back to Madison and his teammates.
“They both play center midfield and, in my opinion, they’re the best players our age in the country,” Cochran said. “The leadership they bring, how they carry themselves on and off the field and how technical they are in their games are things that really stuck out to me. Seeing that they’re both playing in the [Major League Soccer], both making good money and starting on their teams at just 20 years old is reason enough to look up to them.”
Cochran’s goal after Wisconsin is to make it into the MLS, but that is not something he is concerning himself with now.
“My first goal is to get this team to the NCAA tournament and to make a run in it,” he said.
That type of mentality is reason enough to believe that Cochran is the real deal, but perhaps greater proof can be gleaned from Cochran’s experience after what happened following the UW-Green Bay exhibition match.
As the team began to disperse from the field to grab Saturday night dinner, Cochran had stayed behind to do laps. It was at this moment that Prince turned and said, “He is the type of player that someone can look up to.”