The annual MLS player combine is basically a giant soccer mash-up. About 70 players from all over the country are thrown together and play a series of games over several days in the hope of being drafted by an MLS team. Making a positive impression while playing with unfamiliar teammates can be difficult, especially if a player doesn't occupy one of the glamour positions.
Yet during the 2015 edition, a gangly, 6-foot-7 defender by the name of Axel Sjoberg caught the eye of Colorado Rapids manager Pablo Mastroeni. It wasn't just Sjoberg's frame, positioning and communication skills that got him noticed. When an opposing forward would put his arm on Sjoberg's chest in a bid to gain leverage, the big Swede would immediately knock it down, and win that battle for leverage himself.
Mastroeni said during a conference call with reporters that "all these little minute details of his defending were really interesting to me," but Sjoberg's memory is of a "hectic experience." He recalled going down to Florida 10 days before the combine in a bid to get acclimated.
"I don't love the heat, being from Sweden," he told ESPN FC via telephone. "The actual combine, there were a lot of things going on in a short amount of time, a lot of new players, a lot of new faces, very difficult to string together cohesive play in front of all of these coaches. But I was very fortunate to be on the best team in the combine, and we were able to keep three shutouts in the three games. We went undefeated. Obviously that helped my stock in the combine, so in that sense I was very fortunate."
A few days later, Colorado traded up to select Sjoberg with the 14th overall pick. Time has shown it to be an astute selection. Sjoberg has been a mainstay in a defensive unit that was the stingiest in MLS this season, and he finished third in the Defender of the Year voting.
"As far as the type of defending to have [to do] this year, which is really front foot, which is out-thinking your opponent, outfoxing your opponent, I think Axel had those coming into the league," said Mastroeni. "So after a year's worth of experience -- and listen, he still has a long way to go -- his improvement from year-to-year has been tremendous. I think the sky is the limit for him."
If Sjoberg were to ever have a TV special made about his life, calling it "The Decision," LeBron James style, wouldn't quite do it justice. A more apt title would be "The Decisions" because throughout his burgeoning career, Sjoberg has found himself at numerous forks in the road. Some choices were forced upon him. Others he sought out. But as he has often shown on the field, his instincts have invariably proved to be correct.
The first difficult choice came when Sjoberg was just 15 years old. Growing up in Stockholm, his father, Lars-Erik, stressed that his son should play multiple sports. Hockey, track and field, and soccer dominated young Axel's days.
He reckons he was just as good at hockey -- NHL veteran Mats Sundin was his hero growing up -- but Sjoberg ultimately threw his lot in with soccer, playing in the youth academy of Stockholm-based side Djurgardens IF. But even now he feels he benefited from the athletic cross-pollination that he experienced, even from hockey, where there wouldn't appear to be much in common at first.
"For me it was a lot about reading the game as well, and exploiting space," he said about his experiences playing hockey. "I wasn't the best skater to be honest, but I was very good positionally, and reading the game ultimately helped me as well."
Three years later came another difficult choice. His time as a Djurgardens youth player was coming to an end, and a spot in the first team wasn't going to happen, so Sjoberg left and took what he calls "a leap of faith" by going to college in the U.S. at Marquette University and playing soccer under head coach Louis Bennett.
The college game is often derided as being ill-equipped to develop pro players. No doubt it has its weaknesses, but Sjoberg insisted that his four years with the Golden Eagles "had a profound impact on my career." The emphasis on technique and tactics that characterized his upbringing was fused with a physicality that he hadn't experienced before.
"Bennett taught me quite a few tricks -- almost cheap tricks -- that helped me on the field," he said. "Growing up as a youth player, that's not what they teach you. So you either have to pick that up yourself or have some kind of influence to do that. My head coach, and the rest of the coaching staff at Marquette, really helped me hone and get better at some of the details of the game that you don't learn when you're a youth player."
Once Sjoberg was in Colorado, he immediately impressed coaches and teammates. That faith gave him confidence that he could cope at the pro level, but the increased physical demands led to a series of nagging injuries during his rookie season that limited him to 14 games.
"I could tell towards the middle and end of the season, that I was just gassed," he said. "I think that's ultimately what my body did, it gave up and picked up some knocks, picked up some small injuries."
After the season, he took five weeks off before engaging in what he calls "pre-hab," the process of strengthening his body for the rigors of the campaign. That approach paid off, as Sjoberg missed just three regular-season matches in 2016.
Sjoberg's steady presence has played a huge role in Colorado's success this season, and the Rapids now find themselves going up against the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference finals. Colorado trails 2-1 from the first leg, and is hoping that Sunday's second leg in Commerce City will see it reach the MLS Cup final for the third time in its history.
"I think it's just something we've built on throughout the year," Sjoberg said. "We got on a run in April and May, and continued the unbeaten run into July. That obviously helped build our confidence and we were top of the league for quite some time. But I think it's been a journey, and there's not been a single point in time where we, out of the blue, realized that we were going to be a good team.
"It's a different feeling in the locker room than last year. We really have achieved a lot this year, but as everyone keeps saying, we're not done. We're so far from done. Two games away from taking it all. We're very excited to be at this point, but we still have two more wins to go."
Sjoberg's improvement has led to some speculation that he might return home to boyhood club Djurgardens. He insisted that the reports are just rumors, and given that his father is the club's chairman, one could say that Sjoberg is in as good a position as anyone to gauge that level of interest. But for now, he's content to stay right where he is.
"I think any player with ambition wants to test themselves at the highest level, and I'm no different," he said. "I want to become as good as I possibly can, and play in the best league I can, for the best team. But right now, I think that's Colorado. I think I'm in a great place with a great team. I still feel like I have a lot of things to improve on, so I see tremendous upside here at the moment, and I have no intention of leaving anytime soon."
That looks to be the latest in a long line of good choices.