The following is an excerpt from an upcoming article on the recent jump to the pros made by four standout players from the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s soccer team, which won the 2011 NCAA championship last month. Here, forward Billy Schuler speaks to an American reporter for the first time since forgoing Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft to sign with a club in Sweden.
On a team full of stars, Billy Schuler often shone the brightest. After missing the 2010 season with a shoulder injury, the redshirt junior forward led the Tar Heels with 16 goals in 2011, eight of them game winners. The Allentown, N.J. native, who also earned All-America honors in 2009, possesses a prized combination of speed, skill with the ball and a dramatic flair.
The majority of prospects for Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft, held each January, are college seniors who have exhausted their collegiate eligibility. The remaining choices are comprised predominantly by Generation Adidas signees and non-collegiate internationals. Schuler was eligible for inclusion in last week’s SuperDraft as a graduating junior and because he was offered a Generation Adidas contract. Considered the second-best forward prospect after Akron’s Darren Mattocks, Schuler was predicted in many mock drafts to be the third overall pick.
In mid-December, however, rumors were already swirling that several European clubs were taking a gander at the speedy striker. Finally, two weeks ago word broke that Schuler would decline MLS’ offer and instead sign for Hammarby IF, a Swedish second-division club based in Stockholm. Hammarby recently made news by hiring former U.S. international (and UNC-Chapel Hill player) Gregg Berhalter as their manager, only the second native American ever named the full-time coach of a European club.
Last Saturday, I spoke with Schuler from his hotel in Stockholm, the day he officially signed his contract with Hammarby and two days after setting foot in Sweden for the first time. Schuler says that his agent had made inquiries with overseas clubs “since [UNC’s] season ended,” but that the decision to play to Europe instead of MLS was made “literally a week or two ago.”
“It was pretty much set I was going to MLS,” says Schuler. “We had told them, and there had been some counteroffers on the table. Then, I basically got the offer [from Hammarby] a couple of weeks ago and decided [to come here] maybe a week ago.”
Schuler says that while beginning his career in Europe was not necessarily his plan, “it was my desire to play overseas.”
“Since my season with North Carolina ended, MLS was my most likely destination,” Schuler says.
“They had the most interest and it was concrete interest—it would be almost a sure thing. But then Hammarby came into the picture, and it was really exciting because it was an opportunity to go overseas. It was hard to pass up because it was a good offer and all the other things that were wrapped up in it … Gregg Berhalter is the coach; he’s an American [who] grew up in New Jersey and went to UNC like I did, so there’s some connection there.
“In talking with Hammarby, they’re almost starting from scratch…They have a ton of new players they’re bringing in, they have a huge fan base, and they want nothing more than to go back into the first division. So, everything leads me to believe it was the right decision.”
Berhalter says his interest in Schuler was something he brought to Hammarby after being named their head coach last month.
“You follow the college season and you see who’s having a good year and you keep tabs on these people,” says Berhalter. “Obviously, as the [college] playoffs approach and you start following players even more closely, he was someone who caught my eye as having potential to make it at this level.”
“[Billy’s] very good at turning to goal, he’s good in tight spaces and he has a knack for scoring goals,” Berhalter says. “[In] the Swedish league you need to be good in tight spaces. So, those are the things that caught my eye.”
Schuler scored one of his opportunistic goals in the NCAA College Cup semifinal against UCLA with a crucial leveler in the 85th minute, when he pounced on a rebound off an Enzo Martinez screamer (at the 1:32 mark in this compilation):
Still, many American players who eventually went on to play in Europe began their pro careers in MLS — Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and many others. And, the salaries initially guaranteed to highly touted Generation Adidas players can reach well above six figures, comparable to the contracts offered in Europe to young, unproven American talent. For Schuler, however, there were other related reasons to forego MLS.
“The Generation Adidas deal I was offered is a five-year contract,” explains Schuler. “It’s a two year guaranteed contract with three option years that the club holds. So, if there is European interest or something, the club would have to let you go, which is usually not very easy. I’m going to turn 22 in a few months, and that would kind of hold me down in MLS until I’m 26. For me, that’s a long time.”
Beyond contractual considerations, Schuler was drawn by the prospect of launching his career in a country and continent where football is king.
“It’s just a different atmosphere over here,” observes Schuler. “The Hammarby fans, and the fans in Europe in general, are so into soccer and I’ve never experienced anything like that. It’s all soccer over here, and that’s something I wanted to experience. (Here’s one of numerous videos of Hammarby fandom. And another.)
“MLS is growing every day and it’s doing a great job. But, I talked to some people and they say there are only a few places where they like to play because [that’s where] the fans love it. That’s not why I came [to Sweden], but even playing at UNC there’s sometimes only 300 people in the stands for our opening game.”
“If you’re able to come to this stadium and see the fans and the atmosphere during the game it’s exceptional,” adds Berhalter. “There’s a lot of upside here at the club.”
Schuler confirmed that his contract with Hammarby is for two years guaranteed plus an option year for the club. Schuler is clearly hoping to follow in the footsteps of other Hammarby strikers, including Charlie Davies, who scored 21 goals for the team in 2007-09. Indeed, Schuler sought Davies’ counsel before making his decision to sign with Hammarby.
North Carolina head coach Carlos Somoano believes the presence of Berhalter not only gives Schuler someone he can readily relate to and can relate to him, but also removes the fear of being paired with a head coach who might harbor a bias against young American upstarts.
“It comes down to individual personality,” Somoano explains. “If you’re a risk-taker or adventurous person, there’s a lot to be gained from playing overseas. It’s hard to prepare for because, like Billy, you’re 21 years old and you’re going to a foreign country…there’s really no way to prepare for that. Success is not going to be determined just on playing soccer. It’s going to be based on his ability to adapt. Soccer-wise, he could be more than prepared to compete at that level, but it may be covered up by his inability to deal with a foreign culture.”
Although Schuler did not seek the advice of his college coach before going to Sweden, Somoano still believes Schuler has a great chance to succeed.
“Billy is pretty resilient,” says Somoano. “He has a good attitude and he’s an open-minded guy. And, he does have some experience traveling with the U-17 team. This will be very different, but I think he’ll do fine.”
“I just want to play professionally for a living,” says Schuler. “And, Europe is the place to play soccer. MLS is great, but it’s Europe that has the most potential. I’m at Hammarby now and I could stay here for the rest of my career or maybe I get picked up by another team. Who knows? Maybe I come back to MLS after a failed stint with the team. I don’t know.
“But, I feel like there’s a lot more potential in Europe to do something, and do it for a living, than maybe in MLS.”