SANDY, Utah — When Real Salt Lake traded Jamison Olave in the offseason, the plan was for Chris Schuler to take his spot at starting center back.
For the first 12 games of the season, that plan was working, but unfortunately for RSL and Schuler, for the second straight season he suffered a foot injury that put him out of commission for months.
After not playing a game from the second week of May until the end of September as he struggled and battled with a stress response (the beginning signs of a stress fracture) in his foot, Schuler started his first match with the first-choice 11 Saturday night in a 1-1 draw with FC Dallas, a match that saw the RSL defense under it for much of the contest after going down a man in the 17th minute.
“I thought he was super," RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis said following the game. "He was Johnny-on-the-spot on a few crosses in the first half, and in the second half, he was calm enough to adjust the ball back to his keeper in the [six-yard-box]. He looks like the old Chris Schuler.”
Schuler's return couldn't come at a better time as RSL has been struggling defensively down the stretch, and particularly on set pieces where Schuler's 6-foot-4 inch frame can help with balls whipped into the box.
"I think he played very well," said defender Tony Beltran. "He brings such a physical presence. The thing about Chris is he is also very mentally aware, very mentally tuned in. He wants to win. He has a great desire, so it is good to have him back."
While he missed 18 league games rehabbing his foot, it didn't appear to affect any of the chemistry at the back. He was able to step right back in as if he never missed a beat.
"We are with these guys all the time and have played with each other for years now, so it is very easy for him to slide back in," said Beltran.
Since Schuler went down, RSL tried several players to pair with center back Nat Borchers. Kwame Watson-Siriboe stepped in and played well until tearing his ACL in June. Rookie 19-year-old Carlos Salcedo played well in stints, but showed his inexperience in some critical mistakes, and Brandon McDonald was traded for and had a couple of appearances. But the defense has played its best when Schuler has been the starter.
"It's been a long time since we had Schuler in there and it was great," said Borchers to reporters following the draw on Saturday. "He's a veteran player now. He's in his fourth or fifth year (He is in his 5th season with RSL). He is calm on the ball. Tonight, he was great, won a lot of balls in the air, covered a lot of ground, communicated really well. I'm looking forward to seeing him continue to do well and see us continue to do well defensively."
Now that he is back healthy, Schuler had a chance to reflect back on rehabbing for a long stretch of time for the second straight season. He said the key for him is to just keep his head up high and know things are not all that bad.
"It was definitely not fun, especially when you think you can help the team," said Schuler. "But it is part of the business. I know I live a great life and have a great job and it is all part of it, so I just try to stay positive."