If you didn't know any better, you would've never guessed that Real Salt Lake was missing one of the league's best defenders in its quarterfinal-clinching 4-1 victory over Columbus in the Champions League on Tuesday.
It speaks to how hard Chris Schuler has worked to get himself back on the field.
The second-year, 6-foot-4 defender was a surprise starter against the Crew, and he made the most of it by playing an "excellent" match, according to his coach.
Schuler only played in three of RSL's 40 matches in all competitions last year, and he also missed the final month and a half of the season with a broken foot. He wasn't completely healed for the start of preseason, and only returned to the training grounds fully fit within the past two weeks.
That was the biggest reason why most, including coach Jason Kreis, believed Rauwshan McKenzie was the logical defender to get the start for the suspended Nat Borchers.
"The rational decision was to play Rauwshan, and I was leaning that way all week," said Kreis. "But we say it over and over, and I know people don't believe it sometimes, but what you do in the training sessions matters. And Rauwshan struggled a little bit in training this week and Chris stepped forward, and through the training sessions on Friday and Saturday, Chris convinced us that he needed to play."
Schuler had a nice grin on his face talking about the match afterward.
"It felt good to be out there again. It's been a long time since I've been on the field competitively," said Schuler.
It was over five months ago to be exact. Schuler's last start came in RSL's 3-2 victory at Arabe Unido in Panama City on Sept. 22.
Schuler's biggest contributions were probably his communication at the back.
All week leading up to one of the most important matches in team history, the players and coaches talked about how much Real Salt Lake would miss Borchers' communication and organization at the back.
Schuler said that wasn't really an issue for him to fill that role.
"It's not something that I have to go outside of myself to do. I'd say it's a part of my game. I just tried to make sure I brought it because Nat always does," he said.
As well as he played, when Schuler was asked if his performance puts him in line to earn more playing time this year, he simply said "slim to none."
The second-year player, who many thought RSL would lose in the Portland-Vancouver expansion draft last November, is still very raw and is still backing up RSL's two MLS Best XI defenders, Jamison Olave and Borchers.
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