JAMIE HILL - Monday, January 23, 2012
Coming off a season in which he was rated one of the NCAA's best propsects while he helped lead North Carolina to a national championship, Billy Schuler has plenty of reasons to feel accomplished.
However, having signed with Hammarby in the Swedish second division, where he is viewed as a 21 year old rookie with no professional experience, Schuler now has plenty of new goals in his sights.
Most observers of US soccer did not expect Schuler to be preparing for his first professional season in Sweden at this time. MLS pundits and NCAA junkies projected him to be one of the top picks in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft in January. However, the former Tar Heel ultimately spurned a Generation Adidas offer from MLS and signed with Hammarby.
Schuler found the timing of Hammarby's offer to be ideal.
"It was almost like with a European offer, it's now or never," he told YA. "With an MLS Generation Adidas deal, they have you tied in for five years and it doesn't really seem likely that in five years I might end up getting a chance to go to Europe."
Hammarby is not just any Swedish club. It is the former home of Charlie Davies, who began his career at the Söderstadion before being sold to Sochaux in France's Ligue 1. More importantly, it is currently managed by former US international Gregg Berhalter, the first American to take the reins a professional European club.
Berhalter's presence was a key factor in Schuler's decision.
"I was pretty much going to go to MLS before Gregg called with Hammarby," admitted Schuler. "Gregg called me and wanted to talk to me and he had done some research on me.
"I talked with my agents and they agreed that if I wanted to go to Europe, now is the time," Schuler continued. "The team is in the second division and has no other direction but going up and doing better. The new coach is Gregg, being an American and from UNC and New Jersey like I did was almost too unlikely to turn down."
As Hammarby enters the Swedish preseason, both Schuler and his club harbor strong hopes for a return to the country's top division.
"The team is doing a lot of new things," Schuler explained. "A ton of new players are coming in, they have a lot of optimism about moving forward and doing new things."
While some would call a prospect like Schuler's decision to sign with a club in a small league like Sweden's second tier risky, the forward is confident in his choice.
"I'm not coming here and saying that if they don't make it to the top division then I'm out," Schuler stated. "If the club doesn't make it to the top division next year, then fine; I'll be here and we'll try to do it again. I'm not worried about that at all. However, with the direction that Hammarby wants to go and with Gregg coming in, I think it is an expectation. But if it doesn't happen, it's like a brand new club with all the new players and staff and new coaches, so it might need some time.
Other players such as Davies and Alejandro Bedoya have used the Swedish leagues as a stepping stone to larger clubs in Europe. For now, Schuler prefers to keep the focus solely on the coming season, eschewing talk of a big money transfer before he has ever set foot on the field in a professional match.
"I'm not coming here to use this as a way to get to another league," contended Schuler. "For me, I wanted to get to Europe and there are a lot of eyes watching you in Europe, so whatever happens happens. If by whatever chance I do well and get seen by other teams, that's a great thing, but if I stay with Hammarby in Sweden that's a great thing too."
Some have questioned Hammarby's unorthodox choice of Berhalter as manager. The American has a strong pedigree as a player for club and country, but his coaching resume consists of only a year-long stint as a player-assistant coach for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Schuler, who recently won an NCAA championship under first-year head coach Carlos Somoano, does not share those concerns. "I played at UNC with a brand-new head coach and we won the national championship," noted the New Jersey native.
"I've talked to him a little bit; he wants to play a 4-2-3-1 system, kind of like a 4-3-3," Schuler went on to say. "He is a new coach and he brings a lot of passion. He's brand new and he wants to do well. He has a vision in mind and I think the time has come to talk about it more as a team. I think he wants to do it his way with playing good soccer, possession-oriented."
As a prospect who spent three years in the NCAA system, Schuler does not regret his time spent the quirky and often-criticized American college development system.
"I definitely think [the NCAA] helped [my development]," Schuler opined. "I think the main thing as a player growing up and trying to develop is playing and that's what you do in college soccer. We train every day, even in the spring. We get games in and college is very competitive. Sometimes guys who bypass college and go straight to the pros don't play. The reserve league wasn't there for a while, so they weren't getting games in."
"College was great for me," he continued. "I learned a lot and I grew a lot as a player physically and mentally. Talking to some of the guys here about a lot of Swedish players and in Europe in general - they just play soccer their whole life and schooling is secondary. Guys would have to go back [to school] after their career when they are 32 or 35 and most never do. I grew as a player, but I also have a degree to fall back on when I'm done with my career, where a lot of players don't have that or have the motivation to do that when they're done playing. Unless you're making huge bucks, it's not enough to live off for the rest of your life."
While Schuler enjoyed his college career and, in particular, UNC's national championship, he is under no illusions that this accomplishment carries weight overseas.
"I don't think [an NCAA title] means anything here, but it was definitely a great way to leave college," he said.
For now, his world consists of the preseason and preparation for the coming year.
"I'm going to wait to set expectations, but like any player who wants to play and who has goals going forward, I'll look to play and look to contribute," Schuler said. "It all depends on how I play during this time, but hopefully I'll have a good preseason and force my way into the lineup."
Hammarby will open the season on April 13 when they host Halmstads BK.