Toni Stahl didn't know much about college soccer before he agreed to uproot his life and move to the United States for four years. He just knew he needed a drastic change if he wanted to continue to play soccer.
The Finnish development system had all but chewed Stahl up and spit him out by the time he hit 20. Stahl spent his youth career with Finnish powerhouse HJK Helsinki before dropping down to the second division as he searched for a professional contract. A series of injuries meant he couldn't find his way onto the field even at the lower level. The frustrated Stahl wondered whether he needed to part ways with the game he loved.
Then someone suggested he should try to play college soccer in the United States, an idea that offered Stahl the radical shift he craved. Stahl worked with an organization that facilitates the placement of European players in the American college ranks, took his SATs and bombarded coaches across the country with copies of his resume.
Not surprisingly, Stahl, a 6-foot-3 central midfielder with high-level youth experience, piqued more interest Stateside than he did in the Finnish second division. Coaches around the country registered an interest in bringing him over to the United States, so he leaned on one of his coaches in Finland, a former college player who graduated from West Virginia, to help him decide where he should enroll.
The former Mountaineer perused the list and told Stahl that Storrs, Conn. should be his new home. A phone call with University of Connecticut coach Ray Reid sealed the deal.
"It was very easy for me once I was done talking with coach Ray Reid," Stahl said. "He's one of the most straightforward people I've ever met. It was almost like there was a perfect trust between us right away. So I decided to come to UConn."
As one might imagine when a 21-year-old Finnish kid plops sight unseen in the middle of rural Connecticut, it took some time for Stahl to adjust to his new surroundings.
"The first couple of weeks were kind of weird because I had no idea what kind of place I got myself into," Stahl said. "I didn't have the chance to come and visit the place, so I had no idea what to (expect). The culture shock hit me after a couple of months."
When the shock hit, it hit hard. All of the homesickness and the loneliness that hits the typical college freshman whacked Stahl even harder because he was also trying to adapt to a different culture and a different way of life. The turmoil caused Stahl to assess his future for a second time.
"I was very, very close to leaving UConn and leaving to go back home to go to university there," Stahl said. "I thought about it a lot and called some people back at home. Some of them told me I should go, some of them told me I should stay, but in the end, I decided that I came all the way here and I'm not going to quit. I gave it another chance."
It was the right call. During what he called the "four best years of his life," Stahl said he met some great people, thrived in a great atmosphere and relished the opportunity to play regularly for the first time in a while.
"I just started to see things in a different way," Stahl said. "I started to appreciate some of the subtle things you have in life. I found the spark in soccer again. I got better year after year. I got over my injuries and started to play full seasons. It really helped me and boosted my self-confidence."
Stahl engineered the on-field rhythm he couldn't locate back home and displayed the skills that made a professional career in Finland a reasonable goal. Stahl distinguished himself as one of the top midfielders in the Big East during his four seasons under Reid, claiming Rookie of the Year honors in 2006 and earning Midfielder of the Year accolades in 2009.
The calm and composed central midfielder -- a tidy passer with the right physical attributes to compete at a higher level -- also attracted the attention of professional scouts. With a precious EU passport in hand and possibly a chip on his shoulder after the way his professional dreams were snuffed out the first time he tried to break through, Stahl certainly could have headed home or tried to land a contract elsewhere in Europe.
Instead, Stahl decided that he wanted to stay in the United States and play in MLS. After earning one of five contracts handed out to graduating seniors prior to Thursday's SuperDraft, Stahl is in the process of obtaining the work visa he'll need to start the professional career he had hoped to start half a decade earlier.
The prospects for a future change of course, one that that might take him away from the decision that restored his dreams and his confidence, aren't significant at this point. While he said he didn't know what the future held, Stahl did note that he knew what the soccer was like in Finland and wanted to exercise the opportunity to play in a league that he feels is growing every year.
"For now, I'm excited for what's going on in MLS right now," Stahl said. "I just want to start my career and start working."
Regardless of whether he stays in MLS for a decade or ultimately tries to go home to prove his doubters wrong, the evidence is in on Stahl's American gamble. Change, at least in Stahl's case, is good.
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com.