Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina
By JOHN BOSCHINI
For all the success enjoyed by the University of North Carolina last season, there was one player who found it hard to join in the celebration.
Redshirt junior forward Billy Schuler was one of the most potent attacking threats the Tar Heels possessed during his first two years in Chapel Hill and was set to be a focal point last season. That was before a horrendous shoulder injury sidelined Schuler and relegated him to watching from the stands.
"It was definitely tough," Schuler said. "Even not being able to go on away trips with the guys was difficult. We didn't have the space or the money to do it and even for ACC games I wasn't allowed to sit on the bench. The toughest part was sitting by and not being able to influence the outcome of the game. It was very isolating."
After surgery in the fall, Schuler began rehabilitation. It was a long and arduous process that wasn't completed until the summer, but the rising senior said it gave him a new perspective on the game and an increased desire to perform, something that is very evident in Schuler's play early this season as he has helped the Tar Heels to a No. 1 national ranking, and a recent victory vs. previously unbeaten Louisville.
"Not being able to play really rekindles your appetite," Schuler said. "It was tough getting back to full fitness, but I'm back to 100 percent. The doctors and the trainers actually said my shoulder is stronger than it was before."
Schuler's early-season form would suggest that to be true. He has scored four goals in North Carolina's first three matches, solidifying his place as one of the top MLS prospects in the nation (he was ranked the sixth-best MLS Draft prospect in college soccer by Fox Soccer before the season).
Head coach Carlos Somoano is thrilled to have a reliable attacker back on a team needing a spark of creativity after the departure of Michael Farfan.
"Any time you have a player of Billy's caliber, it's hard to put a number value on it," Somoano said. "He's a guy capable of making the other players better. He's experienced, he's mature and he's invaluable to our team."
Mixed in with the rehab was continuing to establishing a rapport with Somoano, with whom Schuler knows from his time as a UNC assistant.
"I think change is good," Schuler said. "Now that he's in charge he doesn't have to worry about overstepping his bounds. It's been a really smooth transition for us, and he's brought in some new ideas."
Wth the departure of a good chunk of the UNC attack, Schuler has taken on an even more important role in the Tar Heels offense. He has stepped up to the challenge, scoring in each of the team's three victories this season, a run of early-season form that has justified his standing as one of the top pro prospects in college soccer. North Carolina will need him to keep it up as the Tar Heels prepare to face one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
"We love it, though," Schuler said. "There's nothing like going up to Maryland and playing at College Park or when our fans turn out when we play Duke. There's definitely nothing you want more than to play against the type of competition the ACC offers. We play the best defenses and sometimes you play something like the fifth, eighth and 10th best teams in the country right in a row."
Although Schuler is focused on bringing a second national title to Chapel Hill, there's no doubt in his mind that success at the next level is largely dependant on this season's performance. If he keeps up at his current pace, he will stand a very good chance of playing well enough to earn a contract
"Obviously my goal is to play at the next level," Schuler said. "Hopefully with team success comes individual success and that's really all I can hope for."