Earlier this week I had the opportunity to meet virtually with Seton Hall forward CJ Tibbling. Tibbling is Seton Hall’s top scorer this season with six goals in thirteen games played. The Swede is in his third year here at Seton Hall, and has been a leader on this team since his arrival. More recently, Tibbling assisted the first goal and scored the game winner against Georgetown on April 17th to clinch their first Big East Championship since 1991.
Alex Leyboldt: Pleasant good afternoon to everyone my name is Alex Leyboldt and today I’m joined by Seton Hall Men’s Soccer forward CJ Tibbling. The Swedish native is a junior here at Seton Hall and has been one of the Pirates’ most important players over the past few seasons. This season, Tibbling has scored six of the teams twenty-two goals while providing three assists in 13 games, earning a spot on the All Big East First Team. Tibbling and the Seton Hall Pirates are just coming off of a miraculous 2-1 upset over national powerhouse Georgetown, where Tibbling scored a goal and provided an assist to help the Pirates claim their first Big East Championship in 30 years so with that I’d like to thank you for joining me CJ it’s a pleasure to be connecting with you through your busy schedule, how are you doing?
CJ Tibbling: I’m good thank you I’m glad to be here, I’m doing well you know it’s a beautiful day it’s a beautiful week to be a pirate for me.
AL: A beautiful week to be a pirate especially after last weekend, to start with this this interview I would just like to get to know you better a little bit and with that I was wondering what it was like to have to come all the way to the United States from Sweden to pursue your athletic career and what sacrifices you had to make for that?
CJ Tibbling: Yeah, this is quite a big move you know, coming across the water or the other side of the pond so to speak, I mean you know the biggest thing that probably most people can relate to is being so far away from your family you know your friends. Like first it was this time I was going here and it was bold like I wanted to try and see what it was like you know, so I wasn’t really thinking about too much leaving the family. But then there was the second time when I realized OK I’m probably gonna do this so I’m going back to my other life you know like it’s ’cause when you come here it’s like you’re in a bubble you know it’s like another world almost. You have your family over there but you have your life over here, you know it’s like 2 separate lives.
I learned to deal with it kind of quickly, I mean the thing was before I went to Sweden or before I came here, I was sleeping in another part of Sweden playing soccer like full time, and the thing was we were playing a lot of teams that were around the area where I grew up where my mom and my parents stayed so I would be able to go like, one day before the game you know take a week. We usually flew up to the place ’cause it’s so far up North and like I would fly up like one day before I could stay, spend some time and then I would meet up with a team and we go to the game and I could stay another day. So that that kind of set me up well for staying away from the family, like there I was staying away but I had a chance to see my family now and again.
Then instead of just ’cause I feel like a lot of people who come to this, not the [United] states particularly but just go far away from home you know, it’s that instant transition from always being there your family too not being with him at all. So in my opinion, it was definitely a transition but I think it could have been could have been more difficult for sure.
AL: Awesome, next up what or who influenced you to want to become a soccer player growing up?
CJT: I’ve always like just yknow, moving my body and being involved in any kind of sports, like I used to do Brasilian Jiu Jitsu, and circus and acrobatics and stuff like that. I think soccer just became the one because partially my dad, he played soccer when he was younger. That’s what brought him to Sweden. He grew up in Nigeria and then he started playing in Turkey but then he had some problems with his visa, and yeah somehow we ended up in Sweden and that’s where he met my mom you know and then when I came in like yeah he’s always been very supportive for me and has been a role model and is trying to help me improve my game, also my grandmother. But if you’re gonna take one person that like I really aspire to be like is probably Zlatan Ibrahimovic, you’ll probably hear every Swede say that.
AL: Yeah Zlatan is a Swedish legend to say the least he’s a soccer legend for sure is one of the is one of the reasons why I started to watch soccer for sure too.
CJT: He’s just you know talks a big game but you know when you talk a big game and can back it up.
AL: You can’t really hate that. So how did you initially hear of Seton Hall soccer program?
CJT: So basically from the get go I was supposed to, I had committed to San Diego State University, but that was the year before I came here. Basically, something came up I got the chance to go play abroad a little bit and I thought that was like a done deal, that’s what they were telling me. So they had to decline, or say like break the deal with the San Diego, but then I ended up staying in Sweden anyway. And it was like I’m tired of Swedish football you know I wanted to use like my soccer to go somewhere else. And I thought, okay I still have the option to go to states that we can consider that, you know ’cause it’s always like you have this kind of dilemma where soccer’s more prevalent in Europe and so people will probably tell you like ‘going to the [United] states is not good idea,’ ‘it’s gonna hurt your soccer career,’ and I was listening to some of that in the beginning but I still wanted to try it and see what it’s about.
To be honest, I think the [United] states no better place to like combine education and sports you know. If you’re decent in Europe; you don’t even have to be amazing in Europe to be able to get a pretty good deal here, so like coming here; where I would be maybe one in the crowd a little bit you know in Europe, but if I come here it’s easier to make a name for yourself.
So I didn’t go to San Diego State and then the guy I’ve been working with who was connecting me with schools said, ‘Oh I have a school for you that’s when the other side of the coast ’cause that’s that kinda deal with the San Diego I was kinda, I don’t know, they could decide where I could go next. That coach was so mad when I declined like last minute, ’cause you know he was building his plan around me and so then when the guy said, ‘I have a school on the other side of the Coast,’ I was like that’s fine yeah exactly it was a good fit and it worked to work with what’s happened.
AL: It all fell into place it seems and at the right time. So you came into this program while head coach Andreas Lindberg was still getting adjusted into his role here, how has your relationship with the coach evolved over your time together and how has that affected your game?
CJT: Our relationship is really close you know ’cause even I think in when you struggle that’s where you see that person’s true colors more, that’s why you really need to support each other you know. There’ve been some Upson downs you know, but he’s always supporting me and he’s always like if there’s any trouble then like if there’s someone so… I don’t know that he’s got my back you know, so it’s like through the years definitely been strengthened. It’s just amazing to see that what we set out to do at the start when he told me to come here was like the plan was to turn this program around, and the first two years we had the players but we couldn’t really get that team bonding and everything wasn’t clicking. We were so close each year, like we were one game away from playoffs both years but I mean it’s night and day from this season. Last season we had a few wins here and there but now it’s been good, our relationship has definitely evolved throughout the years.
AL: Definitely, for sure. I actually had spent some time with the team back in 2018 I’m not sure if you remember
CJT: Yeah no I remember, ‘cause I thought your face looks familiar!
AL: Yeah, I was one of the two soccer operations managers with an I remember seeing the team had the talent and they it was just you had to figure out what pieces fit where and it was nice to see how the team blossomed into the way it is now.
Speaking about now, The United Soccer Coaches Poll just released their new rankings today, and they put Seton Hall at the 6th best team in the country. For you what’s it like being one of the big-name players on Seton Hall’s highest ranked team since 1988?
CJT: I mean to be honest, I don’t think about it too much. The thing is with somebody, like of course this is a lot about confidence, a player could be really good but if he doesn’t believe in itself he’s not gonna play well. But like I try always to stay humble, and it’s a team sport you know, it’s a cliché but it is a team sport; I would never be able to win the Big East trophy myself. It’s about every single player coming together and going towards one goal together and working for each other and I think that was so good.
It’s just been so nice to see this season like how we’ve evolved with every win we’ve just became stronger and stronger together, and for me to be able to score goals or whatever; like of course it’s the best feeling ever. I’m so glad that like we just everybody’s doing well together, every part of our team is like everybody was happy when we won. Even the ones who never stepped on the field you know, and that’s just a beautiful thing to see that this; it’s really not just about the person who scores the goals it is about the whole thing around you know the support in the trainings, and the trips, everything.
AL: That’s a perfect segue into my next question about the players on the team; it seems like all you guys are super close and you would be there for each other through thick and thin, how does that help with your overall performance in chemistry on the field?
CJT: I mean, I think that’s the most important piece of any team you know like, there just can’t be egos in the team. If you could have like you said like the first year or second year came in like there was talent you know, we didn’t have bad players, but it just… we couldn’t get those connections going. We were, I don’t know, it was a little bit too much to the player over the team I think. And I might’ve sometimes been a part of that too.
When I was playing in Sweden I came from a culture where it was very ‘every man for himself,’ you know like it was a very very hard climate, so when I came here, the coaches trying to connect with you and like the players you know like every player wants what’s best for you then it just becomes so much easier. Like this final, like I don’t know if you know Andrea Borg, the winger, he doesn’t have an attitude problem but when he doesn’t get the ball he’ll complain a little bit, and not really do the defensive work. But this final, I’ve never seem him run like this before, and even though he didn’t have the ball for maybe one or four or five minutes and he didn’t get the perfect ball he was still just doing his job, and he was like the last person to go do that. And if everybody just their job and you know like try to, you know help each other out then then becomes so much easier and a team that has fun together they’re gonna do well together.
AL: Yeah for sure, all about chemistry.
CJT: The chemistry yeah.
AL: So this season, Seton Hall Pirates went undefeated at home and that’s never an easy thing to do. I know for some of the games towards the latter half of the season, fans were allowed to come back and students were able to sit in the bleachers again, how has that fanbase coming back to games have affected you and your team’s performance on the field?
CJT: I mean take that game against Georgetown, I feel like the support we had that game, it took us to another level. Soccer is really a sport that’s meant, like any other sport, it’s meant to play with supporters like you. It just creates a different atmosphere in a way, and I think that’s the sad part with COVID, it doesn’t really feel like the same you know and it makes it harder for the players to go you know get into that zone, you know where it’s game time. So I mean yeah it has definitely helped. And they have the, I don’t know what they’re called, Scalawags or something?
AL: Yeah, the Scalawags.
CJT: Yeah the Scalawags I think they came out to this game and, I mean it just makes it more fun you know. And like, the whole community the Seton Hall community can take it part of what we have been doing this year so long everybody think it’s a win win.
AL: Yeah, a good time to be a pirate for sure. So looking at The Big East Championship game, obviously you got a goal and assist to help in the game. But I wanna know what was going through your head as one of the forwards as you watched Nota to make that save that penalty save in the in the championship what was going through your head the moment that he kicked the ball?
CJT: I mean in the moment when he saved it, before I start when we got the penalty I thought ‘Oh no,’ I’ve been running my a** off that game and I was like ‘nah I can’t I can’t take an overtime, I don’t want to run any more,’ so I mean when he saved that I was like *sigh* you know it was just such a relief you know. But the thing is, I kind of felt like he was gonna save it. You know, they won with two penalties last game I was like ‘nah, this can’t happen again,’ They can’t be bailed out from another penalty you know? I was so relieved, my heart rate went up a little bit because we had that hard time clearing the ball it was bouncing around and think Camille and Nota that was throwing themselves in front of the goal for the rebound too. Definitely quite a scary moment.
AL: Yeah definitely one to get your heart pumping for sure my heart was pumping watching it, it was it was awesome. So when the whistle finally blew and you did end up winning the Big East, what does that mean to you as a person and as a player of this organization?
CJT: It’s a great honor you know. They said what has it been? 30 years we’ve won?
AL: The first time we’ve won since 1991.
CJT: 1991 yeah, I just feel blessed to be a part of this team and it really felt like this season the stars aligned for us you know? Like in a lot of games it’s like, it’s quite close but we, we always manage to find a way to win. And I mean once we won that title it was euphoric, I was on cloud 9. I mean this is just one step in the road, I want to play soccer as much as possible and I saw that you gotta win championships and stuff like that to really put your name out there so, I’m happy.
AL: Speaking of that, as a junior you do have one more year left to leave your mark on this organization. How confident are you in the team and yourself that you guys we will be able to perform at this level again next year?
CJT: I’m more than confident. I mean for me, the the sky is the limit. We came into this season and I had COVID in the fall and some of my teammates did too so like we didn’t really have a proper preseason. Like even when we came here it was, I think we had one case of COVID, so the whole thing was shut down for 10 days. Then on top of that, for some reason this year had to snow like every other day.
AL: Yeah this winter was pretty tough.
CJT: Yeah it was crazy right? So like we didn’t even have a proper preseason to go over the tactics and get these patterns going so we just learned as the games went on. So like say if we come in now in August or if we can even do a little bit earlier this year, like end of July, and have a proper preseason where we can just play with each other and just continue to enhance those connections, that chemistry. And work even more in tactics ’cause right now i think we’re playing some good that’s adapted for college but we’re not i don’t think we’re paying the prettiest soccer. Yeah, we’re winning but it’s like it’s kind of Mourinho-style. But I think we have the players to play a little bit more nice football you know and they were beautiful football, keep the ball a bit more. I think if we can add that to our repertoire, then I think we’ll be unstoppable.
AL: Maybe find that balance of a strong defensive unit but a creative beautiful passing kind of team that would be really awesome to see next season. I know you still have that year left, but after where do you see yourself going with your career? I know there’s the MLS draft that they do out of college, or you could just go back to Europe and go through there?
CJT: I wouldn’t mind staying in the US a few more years. I’m here now you know, and you never know where you’re gonna get this opportunity again. So I mean I’m just gonna keep working hard and see what comes my way you know? Whether that leads me to somewhere in the US, or if I go back home, somewhere in Europe or Sweden. But I definitely want to play soccer for the while longer.
AL: Staying in the US definitely wouldn’t hurt there’s a lot of recruitment in Europe going into the US and MLS right now, they’ve been they’ve been stealing a lot of young talent through from the teams, yeah they’ve been picking up a lot of a lot of young American talent bringing them over to Europe
CJT: That’s true, like what’s his name, Gio Reyna?
AL: Gio Reyna, West McKinney, Alphonso Davies too.
CJT: Yeah, you must be excited for World Cup what is it maybe 2026 or something?
AL: 2026 should be fun for the United states for sure who knows could be fun for Sweden too. And this will be the last question for us today, do you think the Seton Hall Men’s Soccer program will be able to stay successful for years to come after you leave?
CJT: Yeah, yeah I mean I think a major part of college soccer is to be able to find the right players you know? But I think also it’s about the culture and the team and I feel like we’ve created a winning culture and a winning mentality and winning ways in the team now. Then there’s always going to be a few players left that are that have been part of this team now and they will be able to carry on that that mentality and that those ways. I mean the coach will probably progress into a lifetime position.
So I think it’ll be fine, I mean lowkey I wish I would never leave this. I don’t know I think it’s just me and Andreas Nota that’s left now from the first year. I mean that’s college soccer you know, every year is almost a new team.
AL: Yeah every year or a couple years it’s out with the old in with the new.
CJT: Yeah, so I think that we’re more than okay.
AL: Awesome well with that I would like to say thank you so much for joining me today CJ I’m very grateful for this opportunity and I wish you guys the best of luck in the upcoming tournament you guys can watch see J and Seton Hall in the same Hall Pirates take on Air Force in Seton Hall’s first NCAA tournament games since 2005 on Sunday May 3rd at 8:00 PM in North Carolina I’m Alex Leyboldt thank you again for tuning into the interview.