After just two games last year, a recurring shoulder problem that required surgery forced North Carolina to shut down forward Billy Schuler for the entire season.
Schuler could only watch from the sidelines as the Tar Heels marched all the way to the College Cup, falling to Louisville in the semifinals.
After an intense spring and summer of rehabbing and working his way back to fitness, the forward has returned with a vengeance. Schuler has four goals in UNC’s first three games of the season, all of them wins.
“To be playing again after so long on the sidelines feels great,” Schuler told MLSsoccer.com over the phone. “It’s been a long year, being out and finally getting back once the season started. I’m happy with the way things are going so far.”
UNC is a squad very much in transition. The Heels lost several starters to the pro ranks last year and have a new coach in Carlos Somoano. But Schuler’s contributions have been integral to the team’s success.
Last Sunday against Louisville, he scored the game-winner in a 2-1 victory. On Friday against Oregon State, he had a brace as North Carolina romped to a 5-1 scoreline.
For a team that is almost a yearly fixture in the College Cup, a lot of question marks surrounded the traditional powerhouse after Elmar Bolowich resigned in February to take over at Creighton. Somoano, a longtime Bolowich assistant, has smoothed over the transition.
“Carlos has come in really strong, brought in new ideas and a new system that we’re playing,” Schuler said. “It’s been great, I think we’re doing really well with our roles that everyone has and what everyone is expected to do.”
The new coach has seen Schuler pick up from where he left off his sophomore year.
“He’s very aggressive and he continues to be,” Somoano told MLSsoccer.com. “That’s what makes him a special player – he’s a relentless competitor.”
Despite the strong start, Somoano is tempering expectations. Not only are the team still learning his new style and system, they also lost players like Stephen McCarthy, Jalil Anibaba, Michael Farfan and Alex Dixon to MLS.
But the Heels are still in good hands. Along with Schuler, UNC feature sophomore forward Robbie Lovejoy as a complementary attacker, Enzo Martinez and Kirk Urso marshal the midfield, and transfer Matt Hedges leads the back line along with US U-18s Boyd Okwuono and Jordan McCrary.
“We still have a lot of growing to do, and in the meantime we’ve gotten results and won the games so far,” he said. “That’s a positive, if you can get off to a good start from a results standpoint and give the guys some confidence that what we’re doing is working.”
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.