It began with a newspaper article and ended years later with the New York Red Bulls.
When Leo Stolz was a teenager, his childhood club, 1860 Munich, offered him a contract to join their first team in the 2. Bundesliga.
But Stolz, now 24, who in January became a New York Red Bull when he was taken with the 18th pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, wasn't so sure. He valued education — both of his parents had advanced degrees, his mother graduated in law, and his father in economics. And he wasn’t being offered life-changing money.
“The contract was not so high that I was willing to give up my education just to continue playing at that moment,” Stolz told MLSsoccer.com. “I think if they told me I was as talented as Toni Kroos, then probably I would have stayed.”
Which brings us back to the article Stolz stumbled across in 2011, advertising the opportunity to pursue a college education in the United States, and with it an avenue to continue his playing career.
“The college system in the US is really unique, a lot of people in Germany, and I’d imagine in Europe, don't know about it,” Stolz said. “I think if people knew, a lot [of players] would have chosen this path. It’s an amazing opportunity to live abroad, learn another language … and continue your education while playing soccer. It’s something very special.”
So Stolz contacted the agency featured in the article, and they created a profile for him and reached out to colleges. The search led him to George Mason University, where he won all-conference honors in his only season with the Patriots.
As Stolz acclimated to the college game, his father, who had studied at UC San Diego, suggested they take a trip out west over Thanksgiving. Stolz fell in love with Southern California and made an impromptu visit to UCLA to catch a second-round NCAA Tournament game against the University of Delaware.
“We had no idea he’d even come to the game,” said Jorge Salcedo, UCLA’s long-time coach. “He knew we were one of top programs in country, and our style of play in that game against Delaware sold itself to Leo to want to come here.”
He transferred to UCLA ahead of the start of the 2012 season, and his impact was immediate. During his three years as a leader of one of the nation’s most prestigious programs (he captained the team in both his junior and senior seasons), Stolz tallied 20 goals and 22 assists. His led UCLA to the College Cup finals and won the Hermann Trophy as the nation’s best collegiate player as a senior.
All the more impressive, Stolz played holding midfield, the position he grew up playing, his sophomore year, scoring no goals. It was only at the urging of Salcedo that Stolz moved into a more attacking role during his junior year, where he began scoring and creating goals at will.
“His first year he did a great job facilitating and moving the ball, being the pivot for us,” Salcedo said. “What I liked about what happened for him here and will likely impact his career, is the fact that he was flexible and open to play a new role on the field.
“Ultimately I thought he could be more impactful if higher up on the field and add goals to his game. That whole offseason was a tug of war to get him to mentally see himself being able to impact a game offensively. I think he scored 14 goals his junior year. I knew he had it in his game, but it was just a matter of bringing it out of him.”
After graduating last December with a degree in Political Science, Stolz faced the same dilemma he had six years before: whether to go pro or prepare for graduate school and an eventual masters degree, like both his parents.
Only now there was another layer — after choosing to go pro, he had to decide if that meant playing in the US or Germany.
There were certainly no shortage of suitors in MLS. Stolz was an elite talent, one of the few players in the draft widely considered to be MLS-ready, and he'd impressed during training stints with Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake. He'd even been offered a Generation adidas contract after his junior season, when he was a Hermann Trophy runner-up.
What complicated matters for MLS team executives, however, was that Stolz had also been to a few tryouts with 2. Bundesliga clubs ahead of the draft. With no certainty he would sign if drafted, Stolz was a risky pick for any team.
A risky pick for any team not led by Jesse Marsch, apparently. Shortly before the draft, Marsch, who had only been the head coach of the Red Bulls for a few weeks, got a phone call from Salcedo, whom he’d played with on the US Under-20 national team in 1990 and again with the Chicago Fire in 1998.
Maybe it was his friendship with Marsch (pictured right) that precipitated Salcedo’s call. Maybe it was that thanks to their 20-year relationship, Salcedo knew Marsch had a similar coaching style and was confident his philosophy would be the perfect fit for Stolz. Either way, he did all he could to put the two together, and the rest of the league was left out of the loop.
“Jesse’s a very cerebral coach. He’s someone that sees the game similar to way I do and I thought it would be a win-win situation for both the Red Bulls and Leo,” Salcedo said. “I thought Leo’s intelligence and soccer IQ were something Jesse would really appreciate. So I reached out to Jesse and said Leo would love to be in New York … and facilitated a meeting for the two of them to have a conversation.”
The meeting of Stolz and Marsch turned out to be serendipitous, to say the least.
Salcedo and Stolz were at the Missouri Athletic Club with Stolz’s grandfather to collect the Hermann Trophy. Afterwards, they were set to board a flight back to Germany from Chicago, but the flight was delayed for six hours. Not wanting to wait in the airport, Stolz’s grandfather suggested they head to Florida and visit friends instead.
“It just so happens that they went to Ft. Myers, which wasn’t far from the MLS Combine,” Salcedo explained. “That's how [Leo and Jesse] met. They would have never met in person had that flight not been delayed.”
Stolz himself — who declined an invite to participate in the Combine — admits that conversation with Marsch, coupled with Salcedo’s advice, led him to choose New York and the Red Bulls.
“His vision and style of play fit the best for me of all my options,” Stolz said. “It was similar to what I was used to at UCLA. The entire overall situation, I could see myself here. I decided quickly.“
The result was one unique to MLS. The rookie, so certain of his destination of choice, fell to the 18th pick in the draft as other teams shied away. Eagerly awaiting, after a run to the Eastern Conference finals last season, were the rebuilding Red Bulls.
Stolz has fit in well with the new-look squad Marsch is building, featuring in each of the Red Bulls’ first two preseason games in the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic, though he left their win on Saturday in the 32nd minute with mild shin splints.
“Leo’s focused on the right things,” Marsch said. “He’s been around the game at different levels. He’s mature in the way he thinks and talks, and in the way he plays the game. He’s a more refined young player who has adjusted quickly because of his experience and knowledge of how the game works.”
Stolz credits his experiences as a member of the 1860 Munich academy with paving the way for his comfort at this level, something that sets him apart from many MLS rookies.
“I think the 1860 Munich academy is one of best in Germany. That definitely helped me a lot to build a good base,” he said. “I think that was a big advantage I had compared to other college kids that maybe didn't grow up in an MLS academy. My entire environment as youth academy player was to prepare me to be a professional.”
Despite a plethora of options in the center of the Red Bulls midfield — newly signed US international Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins, Peguy Luyindula — Marsch sees Stolz as an immediate contributor.
“We’re most likely going to play with three center midfielders often,” Marsch said. “I think he can play any of those spots. He can play like a No. 6, play like a No. 8, play like a No. 10.
“Our expectation is to use him more as a deeper guy. We want him to be part of the build up and be mobile in the midfield … and get him on both sides of the ball.”
Salcedo thinks Stolz will thrive wherever Marsch asks him to play.
“The way I described Leo to Jesse, is that teams that have been successful in MLS have players that understand what needs to be done to make the next best play,” Salcedo said. “They help identify moments for the next best play to become a dynamic attack.
“Leo is someone you can absolutely count on to make best play possible for his team.”
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Stolz is less worried about where he will play, and more interested about seeing the field as much as possible before he makes any more decisions about his future.
“For me, I would just like to get as many minutes as possible,” Stolz said. “My goal for the first year is to step into the door of pro soccer. The level is definitely a lot higher than college, and these first two weeks have been a bit of a transition.
“I’m looking right now week by week. I would love to see how the league develops. You never know what will happen. I can see MLS being a big league in the next five to 10 years.”
Salcedo uses an unexpected analogy when describing how he sees Stolz’s Red Bull career playing out.
“Sometimes I liken Leo to man and women on a first date,” Salcedo said. “First you go out and you get to know them, you like them a lot, but you don’t know them that well. Eventually, you realize you’ve fallen in love. At first Leo doesn't overwhelm you with athleticism or strength. But he offers so much more to his game when you get to know him.
“There’s so much to Leo’s game and it’s all a matter of putting him in right spot and demanding he make certain plays, and I imagine that both the Red Bulls and their fans will reap reward.”
Red Bulls fans, on the other hand, are hoping it's love at first sight.