VANCOUVER, BC – 11,113 miles as the crow flies.
That’s the distance Billy Schuler’s soccer career has gone, starting from his hometown in New Jersey to Vancouver – with stops in North Carolina, Stockholm and Northern California.
Sounds like a lot of airline miles and refrigerator magnets.
“Soccer has brought me around the world and has taken me to some of the coolest places,” said the Whitecaps FC 2 striker.
His is a journey that started in Allentown, a small historic village in central New Jersey that was built around an old grist mill powered by a waterwheel.
In his boyhood years, the town landmarks he really cared for were the pitch, the diamond and the hardcourt, and it eventually became evident where his heart belonged.
“When the time came in high school to choose, it made a lot more sense to play soccer," said the 25-year old Schuler. "I played for my youth team growing up and my dad had me switch to an older team and I got upset. It turned out to be the best thing for me."
The decision to run with elite teams proved to be the first domino to fall that would set in motion a long eventful life on the pitch. With the added exposure, the United States Soccer Federation soon came calling with an invite to their Residency program in Bradenton, Florida.
Schuler’s stellar performance for the Americans in his three starts at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea, including a goal against Tajikistan, would catch the eye of college coaches, as he would get recruited by Rutgers University, located in his own backyard in the Garden State, and Atlantic Coast Conference programs Virginia, Duke and North Carolina.
Seemingly always a step ahead of his peers, Schuler graduated high school early and it was only North Carolina that could welcome recruits a semester in advance.
Next stop, Chapel Hill.
“UNC is just an amazing school and program," said the proud ex-Tar Heel. "Through the years, you become the main guy. Leadership is almost thrust upon you. Winning was an attitude at UNC and you expected it. Every game we went into, we expected to win."
Schuler starred for arguably the best college soccer program in the U.S. in that time span, reaching the Final Four in all four years he was wearing the Carolina blue and scoring 29 goals in 79 appearances.
After losing in the College Cup semifinal as a junior and seeing the Akron Zips, led by coach Caleb Porter and freshman Darren Mattocks, celebrate the national title, the Tar Heels made it a mission to finish the job the following season.
This they did. With an overall record of 21W-2L-3D, North Carolina won the ACC Tournament Championship but found themselves in the same spot as the year before, on the brink of elimination in the national semifinals.
On the 85th minute of the do-or-die match against UCLA, Schuler stepped up and charged in to slam in a rebound past current LA Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe for the late equalizer.
The Heels would not look back after that, advancing to the final on penalties and securing their first national title in a decade against Charlotte.
With his job complete at UNC, Schuler was faced with a decision. To enter the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, where he and Mattocks were predicted to go in the top three picks as the two highest-rated strikers available, or accept an offer from Stockholm-based outfit Hammarby IF in the Swedeish Allsvenskan league.
“Every soccer player dreams of playing in Europe. The offer was too good to be true that I couldn’t turn it down.” - Schuler
Playing for current Columbus Crew SC manager and fellow ex-Tar Heel Gregg Berhalter, Schuler, then 21, had his share of struggles in his first season as a professional overseas.
“It was a very difficult league. I had some testing times, it was definitely a learning experience,” Schuler looks back.
During his second season at Hammarby, he started making strides and news of his progress reached across the Atlantic as he fielded interest from several MLS clubs.
Schuler signed with MLS in January 2014 and was assigned to San Jose Earthquakes by a weighted lottery. He made his debut for the Earthquakes in the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final tilt against Mexican club Deportivo Toluca FC. The match went into a penalty kick shootout where Schuler would score, but San Jose would ultimately fall short.
After making six appearances for the ‘Quakes, Schuler kept looking for a chance to showcase his skills on a consistent basis.
That’s when Vancouver Whitecaps FC entered the picture.
“My main goal is to get playing time, and get myself game-ready," said Schuler, who has scored two goals and is tied for the WFC2 lead with four assists. "I got a call from Whitecaps FC and it’s a great opportunity to come to a great city and play and get back on the field and get some playing time. It comes down to soccer and getting better."
He’s picked up a lot from his travels en route to Vancouver. The winning attitude, the professionalism, and perhaps a few refrigerator magnets along the way.
Much like each drop of water that powers the old grist mill back in Allentown, Schuler takes these little pieces to grind out a professional soccer career that has taken him places.
“I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m trying not to think about next year, I’m just focusing on playing now. I’m just trying to keep playing and keep getting better and doing what I love to do.”
Come and see the next generation of Whitecaps FC stars as USL arrives in Vancouver. WFC2 matches are a unique and affordable experience for fans, families, students, and supporters. Flex packs are also available to fit your schedule – get seven tickets to use any way you want, to any matches you want. For more information on all WFC2 ticket options, call 604-484-7862 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.