Sandy • Life on the pitch has endless possibilities. It also has the end possibility. Which is an approach of duality Chris Schuler takes to his continually emerging career as a 26-year-old professional soccer player.
Seen as a potential U.S. men’s national team fixture since his development led him to becoming a starting staple at a center back with Real Salt Lake, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann took notice this winter. But the 6-foot-4 defender from Chicago has at times caught a glimpse of the end of the tunnel. Injuries have not only plagued him, but forced him to "take a handle of my life" at times since persistent foot injuries kept his rise as a young, imposing American defender on hold for too long.
About Chris Schuler
Age » 26
Position » Center back
Hometown » Aurora, Ill.
Pro career » Real Salt Lake (2010-present)
Transaction » Drafted by RSL 39th overall in third round of 2010 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 14, 2010.
Games played » 58 regular-season games, 50 regular-season starts
RSL at ChicagoSaturday, 6:30 p.m.
TV » CW30
He calls the summers of 2012 and 2013 — a combined 29 appearances due to injury — his "two summers off." But while he managed to navigate around the dark days of a less-than-desired start to his Major League Soccer career, the idea of not reaching his potential never entered his mind.
In fact, during his developmental years in 2010 and 2011, Schuler was razzed by teammates and friends in the locker room. The running joke was that he’d never crack the starting combo of Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave.
"Not in a mean way, but just joking," Schuler said, laughing. "But it’s not something I felt like I needed to correct. I always knew... it was out there for me. I’ve always believed I could be a starter in this league, especially on this team, despite who was in front of me."
Incubated in a veteran-laden locker room and a team consistently competing for playoff spots and trophies since his first year in the league in 2010, Schuler may not be the most definitive locker room voice, but he may, in fact, be one of the most interesting.
He loves soccer. Always has since he chose the sport over Tae-kwon do, wrestling, basketball, baseball and street hockey. It was where things made sense for him.
But those 90-plus minutes every week must come with an outlet. Schuler’s found several. A few weeks ago, he went trapshooting for the first time. He’s been hunting, fishing and is in the middle of perfecting a cookbook his grandmother gave to him specializing in chile verde sauce.
To add to his intrigue, he’s studied the pros and cons of social media powerhouse Twitter and relates it to the now-faraway days of the AOL chatrooms. At the moment, the accessibility is a slight turn off.
"You could just pick a random chat room and there’s 200 or 300 people in there — that’s what Twitter is to me, but the whole world," Schuler said. "I’m having fun in real life."
His teammates are noticing. Borchers, predictably a mentor for Schuler for the last five seasons, said his center back mate has been a sponge over the years.
"He’s just soaked it all in," Borchers said. "Learning the position of center back in this league, growing so much as a person off the field as well. He’s been tremendous. I like our partnership. I think he’s brought a lot to the table for us defensively. I think if you talk about his biggest attribute, people talk about how long he is and how physical he is, but I think it’s his intelligence."
When RSL was forced to trade Olave in December 2012 due to salary-cap constraints, the move also signaled the time for Schuler to step forward and continue his progression from a third-round draft pick project in 2010 to pick up where one of the club’s most dynamic defenders left off.
Overcoming the injuries was a constant mind game, but Schuler powered through. He missed 22 games in 2013 due to constant swelling in his talonavicular joint in his foot. When he returned, RSL took off, as did his stock as a potential U.S. pool player. Schuler scored the series-clinching goal against the L.A. Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinal and added another against Portland in RSL’s Western Conference triumph over the Timbers.
"I think forwards do not like playing against him," said RSL coach Jeff Cassar. "It’s similar to what Olave used to have … he’s a very good passer of the ball out of the back. I think the future’s bright for him. I would say he’s an imposing figure."
Schuler’s dominant postseason play led to a phone call from Klinsmann. On the other end was an invite to a month-long U.S. camp in Southern California and Brazil. But bone spurs floated around in Schuler’s ankle and needed removing. He had to decline. Schuler opted for surgery days after RSL’s MLS Cup final loss to Sporting Kansas City.
"That’s an actual validation," he said. "It’s not speculation from a reporter saying that I could be playing. I got a lot of questions like that leading up to the MLS Cup. For it to actually be validated by talking to [Klinsmann], it’s all positive."
No doubt his name will be thrown into the hat for the 2018 World Cup cycle. In the mean time, he studies fellow MLS center backs Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez — the odds-on pair to start for the U.S. in Brazil this summer — while still certain he can get to that level sooner rather than later.
"It’s something that I think about, yeah," Schuler said. "I do have things I can offer as far as the next cycle, but in order to get there, the end goal of playing with [the U.S.], being in that position, it starts here, so I focus on the day."
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