Stockholm, Sweden and Santa Clara are hardly joined at the hip, but the two distant locales represent a connecting link between Earthquakes forward Billy Schuler and Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter .
Schuler and Berhalter will be on opposite sides on Sunday when the Quakes and Crew meet at Buck Shaw Stadium, but player and coach have a lot in common. Both are New Jersey natives and former North Carolina players who merged forces the past two years with Hammarby IF in Sweden.
Now, both are back making statements in the United States.
What a small world.
“Yeah, it will be fun,” Schuler said in anticipation of the reunion. “I haven’t talked to him much since he coached me over at Hammarby. It will be good to see him.”
The feeling will be mutual.
“Billy’s a great guy,” said Berhalter, a former U.S. international who has the guided the Crew to an encouraging 3-1-0 start. “At Hammarby, he certainly improved. There’s definitely a big upside to him.”
Schuler, who has been sharp in practice, appears poised to make his MLS debut. He will have plenty of motivation should the chance arrive on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m sure Billy would relish the chance to get on the field and play against his old coach, but probably just relish the chance to get on the field in general,” Quakes coach Mark Watson said. “He’s only played the game in Toluca (in Mexico), which was a difficult game, but he did really well. He deserves playing time.”
The Quakes landed Schuler via a weighted lottery on Jan. 14 after learning all they could about him. Before deciding to come back home, Schuler scored two goals in 26 appearances with Hammarby IF, also spending time on Nacka FF, Hammarby's development team. Schuler was also an accomplished youth player, including competing with the U.S. U-17 Team in the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea. He was selected the 2007 Parade High School All-America squad, among other accolades.
Watson states that Schuler will be in the mix going forward.
“Billy has done a really good job since he’s come in here,” Watson said. “The only issue with him not being on the field more is because he plays a similar position to Wondo, but he has looked really good. He has great instincts for the game. He’s got good feet, he finds space, and he’s really good in the box. He’s got a lovely little touch, and his finishing is really good.”
The Schuler-Berhalter Sweden connection got rolling when Berhalter convinced him to come to Europe after Schuler starred in North Carolina’s run to a 2011 national championship. Schuler topped the start-studded Tar Heels with 16 goals, including showing his Goonie side with eight game-winners.
Schuler said he and Berhalter talked a “bunch” when he was deciding whether to go to Sweden or MLS right out of college.
“He brought me over there,” Schuler said. “He helped me a lot in the beginning stages, and from then on he was a coach like any other. He pushed me. He didn’t coddle me at all, but we had a good relationship. I really liked Gregg and I think he’s gonna be a great coach in Columbus.”
Clearly, Schuler is enjoying seeing his old buddies and ex-teammates in his first MLS go-round. This week he will see another familiar face in Crew forward Ben Speas, who teamed with him in North Carolina.
Reunions aside, the Quakes’ primary goal is to get a win at home after a 0-2-1 start. Schuler and forward Adam Jahn, who had a solid start last year as a rookie, and others have been patiently waiting their chance to contribute. Steven Lenhart’s unfortunate MCL injury has opened the door for the up-and-comers.
And when Schuler sees his old coach again, he can expect a handshake, right?
“I’ll probably give him a hug,” Berhalter said. “Billy, it was great working with him. He always had a good attitude. He’s someone that you’re really pulling for, really hoping that he would do well.”
- Richter Media