UCLA's Leo Stolz Brings a Heady Approach to Soccer
The 23-year-old UCLA star is widely regarded as the best college soccer player in the country and he wants to go pro, but the cerebral German is open to whatever the future holds.
BY Robert Kehoe III PostedWE ASKED ONE OF THE country’s top college coaches: If given the choice, who would you add to your team from an opposing roster? He answered without hesitation: "Leo Stolz." Anyone who has seen the UCLA senior play will understand and respect the coach's reply—Stolz is that good. The 23-year-old Germany native was nurtured in 1860 Munich’s youth academy and showed enough potential to receive a contract offer with its senior team when he was 18 years old. But Stolz wasn't sure if a pro contract in the Bundesliga was what he really wanted. When introduced to the idea of playing college soccer in the U.S., providing an opportunity to pursue his athletic and intellectual ambitions, the next phase of Stolz’s soccer and academic development became crystal clear. "When 1860 Munich offered a professional contract, my parents, who are both very educated, wanted me to consider broadening my perspective before I committed to pro soccer," Stolz told American Soccer Now. "Because German universities don’t offer a combination of soccer and school, college soccer was a pretty high level and I could get a great education, so coming to the United States was a great fit for me." Initially that brought Stolz to George Mason University, where he made an immediate impact, starting in all of GMU’s 18 matches, scoring four goals, logging three assists, and earning all-conference recognition. After transferring to UCLA his sophomore year he’s only gotten better, especially in his ability to create and score in the final third. Stolz’s coaches describe him as a pure playmaker who can shape the game box to box, possessing an uncanny ability to find open spaces in unlikely and unpredictable moments. His athletic prowess only tells part of the story, however. UCLA assistant coach Nick Carlin-Voigt describes the dynamic German as, “a consummate student-athlete. He’s intelligent, balanced, and well read. He’s a true citizen of the world, who cares as much about life outside of soccer as he does about winning matches and improving his game.” Stolz doesn't dispute the characterization. “I think that’s a fairly accurate explanation," the Hermann Trophy candidate said, "and in many ways that’s why I chose to take this opportunity instead of signing with 1860 Munich.” At UCLA, Stolz said, he’s grateful for the exposure to “all the different backgrounds and cultures that are represented, which is very different from Germany.” He added: “I love speaking English, and California is just amazing. The weather, all the organic stuff that people eat, and UCLA is such a great school with so many smart people—it’s a great environment for me.” Stolz is studying political science and international relations and is looking "to gain a broader perspective on international politics and economics" in the process. So does Stolz want to wear a suit and tie to work, or shorts and cleats? He's not sure. “I’ve turned down pro soccer twice,” said Stolz, who also passed on a Generation Adidas offer last year, “so this is my last chance for sure. I’d be delighted to play at that level, but we’ll have to see because so much depends on the philosophy of the team and what style of soccer they want to play.” Is it possible that Stolz' non-soccer interests will scare off potential suitors? “I don’t really care," he said. "I don’t see my personal interests as a problem. In fact, if I get a pro contract I’ll probably still take online courses and continue my education in some way because you actually have a lot more time when you’re a professional to do whatever you want. "You have training and team meetings for three or four hours and then you have the rest of the day to yourself, so I want to do things like learn French or learn more about philosophy. Just playing soccer would be a little bit too boring for me." If Stolz does go pro, he brings a lot to the table. He’s meticulously technical, consistently focused on maintaining possession, and always looking to create goal-scoring opportunities. Since joining the Bruins he’s also increased his stamina to cover the whole field for 90 minutes and beyond. “I’m not the kind of player who is very extreme, with one really amazing performance and then one really bad performance," he said. "I have good tactical understanding of the game but I need to work on my heading and defending.” Growing up Stolz admired Zinedine Zidane, and said he wants to emulate Toni Kroos. You can see the influence of both in his game. From Zidane he’s clearly appropriated the posture of a roaming attacking central midfielder, floating out to the wings, dropping deep to receive passes from his back line, and occasionally hanging up front when it’s clear his admittedly weak defending won’t be of service. From Kroos he’s adopted consistency, precision, and accuracy, without compromising his eye for creativity. From both he’s gathered the ambition to have the ball at his feet as much as he can. According to Pac 12 conference rival and University of Washington head coach Jamie Clark, “Leo is a versatile player who can dictate games, control tempo, play decisive passes, and score goals.” (Stolz had 11 last season.) “Stolz was possibly the best player in college soccer last season and at the pro level I can see him being a Dillon Powers-type player,” Clark added, referencing the Colorado Rapids midfielder. Stolz does not lack confidence in his own abilities. “I had a chance to practice with Chivas USA and I think I fit in there pretty well,” he said, adding that “it’s different playing in training session compared to a full match. Still, I think overall I could do pretty well in the MLS.” “In MLS the level is a bit lower than 1860 Munich’s first team,” he continued, “which I played with a few times before I came to the U.S. There’s more balance in the quality of German teams because the standards are already so high, even in the youth systems.” In reflecting on the challenges facing the United States compared to Germany, Stolz offers a circumspect outlook on the landscape of both countries: “The systems are just different. In the States there’s more emphasis on the physical part of the game and in Germany it’s more on the technical and tactical side. So American players aren’t as technically or tactically aware as most German players, but at the same time most of the European players aren’t as physically strong as American players.” “If I could bring one thing from the American system to Germany it would be the relationships that coaches have with their players. In Germany there’s probably too much pressure on young kids, so they don’t try things that could make them better.” But for all the theorizing on the state of development in Germany and the United States, Stolz is most focused on graduating from a university that “has given me so much.” He wants to give UCLA a national championship in return. “This season we started really well with really great performances against North Carolina and Wake Forest, but we need to have a better attitude in all our matches, and I need to be leader and encourage my teammates,” he said. “I also need to be very precise on set pieces to create goal scoring chances.” Recently against UC Santa Barbara, UCLA did all of the above, as Stolz scored the games’ only goal with a lethal left-footed strike from 25 yards out. And this past weekend, Stolz struck twice against Cal State-Northridge, helping the Bruins recover from a 1-0 loss to the University of San Diego on Friday. Wherever UCLA ends up in the coming months, Stolz will have a range of options at his disposal as he considers a career in pro soccer. He even has a destination in mind: Zurich. Why? “Because it’s a very cosmopolitan city, and I could speak German and English while learning French.” Robert L Kehoe III (@robertkehoe3) played soccer and studied politics at Wheaton College (IL), and philosophy at Boston College.
September 29, 2014
September 29, 2014