By DAN KARELL
Heading into the start of last season, Leo Stolz was given a new challenge.
After spending his whole life playing almost exclusively as a defensive midfielder, UCLA men’s soccer head coach Jorge Salcedo asked him to play in a more advanced role, hoping to make up for the loss of Ryan Hollingshead to Major League Soccer.
Both Stolz and Salcedo admitted that, at first, the transition came with a few bumps in the road, but after navigating through and around them, Stolz began to shine.
“For me it wasn’t that easy at the beginning to play offensive midfielder,” Stolz told SBI in a phone interview. “During spring season last year, (Salcedo) demanded from me to play more offensively, and I had a little less defensive obligations and more freedom offensively. It turned out well even though in the beginning I didn’t expect it to work out that well.”
The German midfielder suddenly was allowed to show his attacking flair, and led UCLA with 11 goals and 8 assists, earning PAC-12 Player of the Year honors. Now, coming off a disappointing third round exit in the NCAA Tournament after earning the No. 1 seed, UCLA is hoping to rely on the goal-scoring and assist-creating exploits of Stolz in his final collegiate season.
“Leo Stolz has picked up where he left off last year,” Salcedo said. “His training, his mentality, just his real all around professionalism has become infused in the team.
“This year I’m asking him to be more impactful in our offense as well, and last year he obviously had a great influence,” Salcedo continued. “Thus far in the two preseason games, he’s already had much more influence then he had early on last year, and if you look at his year as a whole (in 2013), he had an incredible season.”
Stolz didn’t have to return for his senior season at UCLA.
After the season finished, he had the option of signing a Generation Adidas contract ahead of the 2014 MLS Draft, where he would have likely been a top-10 pick, or returning home to sign with a club in his native Germany.
But for Stolz, finishing the degree he came to America to receive would always outweigh the short-term benefits of leaving school a year early.
“The main reason why I decided to come to the U.S. in the first place was for academic reasons,” Stolz said. “I decided to just complete my degree. I thought it would put me in a better position.
“I have had a really amazing time at UCLA and it would just be an amazing way to finish, winning a national championship. If I would have turned pro, I would have skipped this opportunity. Hopefully we’re going to win it.”
This season, Stolz’s role has increased even more than last year. A member of the Hermann Trophy watch list, he’s being asked to take on a bigger leadership role in the squad, working to integrate the freshman and transfers, and his lead-by-example personality has been a positive influence to the rest of the squad.
“His approach to the game is great and then when we’re on the field, he’s a good role model for the rest of the group because of the experience that he has coming from overseas,” junior defender Javan Torre said. “He’s more of a quiet guy but you see his leadership skills come through when we start to play.”
Luckily for Stolz, Torre, and Salcedo, this may just be the year that UCLA win their next title. The team, ranked No. 1 in the SBI Preseason Top 25, returns six starters from last year’s squad and are improved with the speedy additions of forwards Larry Ndjock, Abu Danladi, and Seyi Adekoya, who will give Stolz more options to play forward than he had last season.
Though they were just preseason games, the Bruins are off to a fast start this fall. UCLA took down the University of Nebraska-Omaha, 5-2, before crushing amateur side, the Los Angeles All Stars, 10-0. Stolz combined to score two goals and added five assists in the two matches, highlighting his star potential.
Now heading into the first weekend of the season, where they’ll face nationally ranked teams in Wake Forest on Friday and the University of North Carolina on Sunday, Stolz is feeling more excited than ever for the upcoming campaign.
“What I’ve seen so far, compared to the preseasons I’ve played before, it’s looking much better than the teams I played with in the previous years,” commented Stolz. “We didn’t lose too many starters from last year, so we’re used to playing together, and the defense as well as offense is looking pretty good so far.
“I’m pretty confident that we have a good shot at going all the way this year.”