Growing up in Sweden, soccer has been ingrained in Seton Hall freshman forward CJ Tibbling’s blood from day one.
Not only is the sport commonplace in Tibbling’s hometown of Jarna and across Europe, but at home as well. Tibbling’s father, Jerome Vgno Tibbling, played professionally for years. It was only natural that the younger Tibbling would take after his father and adopt the sport as his first love.
“I’ve played my whole life,” Tibbling said. “Since I was like 5 or 6 I’ve been playing soccer, it’s natural to me.”
Soccer was not the only sport that piqued Tibbling’s interest as he was growing up, though. He dabbled with jujitsu and other forms of martial arts, but soccer remained his focus, despite his experience with a bad coach that made him question whether he wanted to continue with the game he had played since he was a child.
“I had this coach and it wasn’t going too well for us,” Tibbling said. “I was thinking of going to try out for another team, a better team abroad. Instead of encouraging me to stay, he tried to put me down. He said, ‘who do you think you are, trying to join another team, you don’t score or anything.’ He made the sport not so fun anymore.
“It’s sad. I think it’s a big part of why people quit. I see how different coaches can have different approaches, but you have to be a bit smart about it.”
Despite the negativity surrounding him at the time, Tibbling kept pushing. One day, one of his youth coaches pulled him to the side and expressed a vote of confidence that still sticks with Tibbling to this day.
“He took me to the side and was like, I have a plan for you,” Tibbling said. “Within two years, you’ll be in the first team and playing with them. At that time, I didn’t believe him, but he put a lot of faith in me and he was a big help in my career.”
As Tibbling progressed, his talent became undeniable and the next step for him was to find the right fit at the next level. An opportunity that Tibbling couldn’t pass up came calling when he came into contact with Seton Hall coach Andreas Lindberg.
“My advisor in Sweden knows Coach Lindberg since he’s Swedish,” Tibbling said. “He introduced me to Seton Hall and what he was saying was they had a whole new project going. In past years, the program wasn’t too good, but they had the resources, facilities and potential to change that.”
From a soccer perspective, the decision to come to Seton Hall was not an easy one for Tibbling. The European style of play differs from the American style of play and many of the people Tibbling confided in were skeptical about what going to play in the states would mean for his development.
“When I talked to people from Europe, they were like ‘if you go to college, the soccer…they don’t know. It’s not that big of a thing, it’ll just be a lot of kick and run.’” Tibbling said. “Lindberg brought some of the European philosophy, though. He’s cynical at time, but he still wants to play football and pass the ball around. He’s a good coach and a good recruiter as well, we have a lot of good players and I think that’s why we’re doing so well this year.”
Tibbling also felt comfortable coming to Seton Hall knowing that Lindberg is from the same area as him and understands what the transition from life in Europe to the United States is like. It was not an easy transition for Tibbling at first, but he has settled into life in South Orange quite nicely over the past couple of months.
“I’m busy, like they say you have to be good at time management, especially when you mix sports and education,” Tibbling said. “You have to plan stuff out very well, but I think I have an advantage since I speak English from my dad. In terms of the language, I’m good. Three or four of the players on the team are from Sweden as well, so we arrived a couple of months early and met all the female soccer players. I’ve come into it good and we’ve been doing well, so it feels good.”
Tibbling’s comfort level off the field has translated into confidence and success on the pitch. In eight games, he has fired 31 shots (13 on goal) and has found the back of the net four times. In Seton Hall’s Big East opener against Marquette, Tibbling was active, taking seven shots and scoring both the Pirates’ goals in a 2-0 victory.
Instant success has come along with Tibbling’s aggressive attacking style of play. In his first career game against Army, he netted a brace, including the game winning goal in overtime.
“That was a very good way to start my experience in the States,” Tibbling said. “It’s different here, you play overtime even though it’s just a regular game. That adds a lot to it because you’ve been playing for 110 minutes and fighting hard. When we scored the final goal, it felt amazing because of the effort you put in. It was a good start.”
Since he realized he could play the game at an elite level, Tibbling has wanted to use his skills to take him abroad and provide him with different opportunities. He always had an eye on the United States, but he never imagined the benefits of playing at Seton Hall would be so rewarding.
“I think combining studies and doing a sport in the states is the best opportunity in the world,” Tibbling said. “You’re provided everything and I felt like I wanted a degree and I wanted this chance. I thought it would be easier to maybe stand out and get a move to the MLS, to get drafted. It feels good that I came here in the end. I think these four years will be good.”
The MLS is the ultimate goal for Tibbling, but he has his sights set on the immediate future. At 4-3-1 and 1-2 in conference play, Tibbling sees an opportunity for a talented Seton Hall team to make the postseason and make some noise.
“We’re hoping to make the playoffs, I think it’s a tangible thing that we can do,” Tibbling said. “We have a new project in place with the staff and everything. I definitely think it’s possible.
“My personal goal is to play in the MLS sooner or later. I think if I keep this going, it might be possible. I just have to keep grinding.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.