Sandy • Chris Schuler sat on a training bike on those flawless summer mornings when his teammates were chasing the ball around the grass at Rio Tinto Stadium, preparing for another go at three points in a season spent mostly atop or near the top of the Western Conference.
With his left foot in a boot, the 6-foot-4 center back pedaled harder and harder while looking on as Real Salt Lake trained. He waited for that next time he’d be given the green light.
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That was late June, six weeks after his most recent league action May 11, a 3-2 loss at Montreal. His lingering foot injuries took away most of the spring season from him, and it ran into the summer months.
Schuler faced another strenuous mental and physical hurdle this season after missing four months last season due to a stress fracture in the same left foot. Team doctors believed they caught the beginnings of a similar fracture early, thus shutting down him to avoid surgery.
"It’s a lot more fun to play soccer than to watch it," Schuler said.
The constant swelling is in the talonavicular joint, a joint in the foot that helps connect the midfoot and ankle. Schuler took off eight weeks and was brought back slowly.
It turned into a theme: RSL center backs haven’t exactly been lucky this season. Veteran Nat Borchers missed matches early in the season due to an offseason quadricep surgery, then came Schuler’s foot, followed by Kwame Watson-Siriboe tearing his ACL on June 15 in a reserve match. Rookie call-up Carlos Salcedo needed his gall bladder removed July 14.
All the while, Schuler waited for his return. It came Aug. 31 in a reserve match against the Portland Timbers. It ended with a sprained ankle. Another setback.
"It’s definitely not fun," Schuler said, "especially when you think you can help the team, but it’s part of the business in the end. And I know I live a great life and have a great job, and it’s all part of this."
That approach is paying off. He earned a start at Vancouver on Sept. 28, his first since Montreal on May 11, and RSL pitched a 1-0 shutout at BC Place. He started again Oct. 5 in a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas in which 10-man RSL needed to defend down a man for more than 75 minutes.
"The most crucial thing for us is our partnership, and how well we understand each other going into this final stretch," Borchers said. "We haven’t got a whole lot of games together this year, but Chris has got some excellent characteristics as a center back and I’ve got to make adjustments based on that and he’s got to make adjustments based on me."
Schuler quelled several counterattacks and cleared a dangerous shot to preserve points inside the box against Dallas.
"I think Chris is just doing a good job of trying to focus on all the little things that he does well," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "And I think a healthy Chris Schuler means something."
It means that the imposing 26-year-old defender has a shot at winning back his job on a full-time basis after missing 22 matches. It means with RSL six points away from a Western Conference title and perhaps the Supporters’ Shield, Schuler’s return is pivotal during the most dramatic regular-season finish in franchise history.
"I just try and stay positive," Schuler said, "and control the controllable."
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