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.

Billy Schuler
  • / Andreas L Eriksson
  • Billy Schuler

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):