By THOMAS FLOYD
Nick Rimando remembers a young, raw Chris Schuler breaking in with Real Salt Lake in 2010 as a third-round pick out of Creighton. His first impression of the 6-foot-4 defender?
“He couldn’t kick a ball straight,” the veteran goalkeeper quipped.
Oh how things change. Three years later, Schuler, 25, is an emerging presence at centerback in MLS. Those around him boast that every aspect of his game continues to evolve. Positioning. Awareness. Confidence. And, of course, distribution.
“He has gotten much, much better with the ball,” coach Jason Kreis said. “Both his short passing — what he sees in transition, that first pass that goes forward into the right place — and his switching balls have been much better.
“And that’s because of him, because he’s the type of guy that wants to work on that stuff every day after practice. You actually have to hold him back from doing too much work.”
It’s that drive toward improvement, along with Schuler’s considerable physical gifts, that made Salt Lake comfortable shipping former All-Star centerback Jamison Olave to the New York Red Bulls during the offseason.
After two years biding his time behind Olave and Nat Borchers, Schuler has earned a full-time starting spot, making him a key piece of the RSL 2.0 puzzle.
“It’s great to know that I’ve put in three years of work here and they appreciate it and they respect it,” Schuler said, “and they’re willing to move ahead with me in order to give me a chance to show what I can do.”
Not too long ago, such dependence on Schuler would have been far-fetched. He logged just 243 minutes in all competitions during his rookie year as he developed his game in training, slowly earning the coaching staff’s trust.
He broke out during his sophomore campaign, appearing in 20 regular season matches and three playoff contests. Although injuries limited him to 13 games last year, observing how far he’s come and, more importantly, how much room he still has to grow made dealing Olave a justifiable choice.
“Every aspect of his game still needs to be sharpened up,” Rimando said. “The good thing about him is he’d say the same thing. He wants to get better, and that’s why he’s in the position he’s at.”
One hindrance to Schuler’s development has been his injury concerns. Late in his rookie year, a broken bone in his right foot snuffed any chance he had to contribute down the stretch. And a stress fracture in his left foot kept him out of action for more than three months last season.
As Schuler said, “It was extremely frustrating, but you just do what you do to get back. You can’t make it too negative.”
Yet Kreis, on the other hand, managed to find a silver lining.
“I think it’s hurt him a little bit,” Kreis said. “But maybe those injuries were a blessing in disguise because maybe he didn’t play some of the games he would have and wasn’t thrust into too many pressure situations when he wasn’t ready for it.”
With Borchers sidelined by a quad ailment, Schuler has started the 2013 season partnering alongside fellow fourth-year player Kwame Watson-Siriboe. In two road games against the prolific attacks of the San Jose Earthquakes (first in goals scored last season) and D.C. United (fourth), Salt Lake has allowed just one goal while returning home with a respectable split.
For Schuler, knowing the everyday starter role is his to lose means he must get used to a different approach. But that’s one adjustment he’s more than happy to make.
“You’ve got to handle your business,” Schuler said. “You’re used to fighting for a spot, and now I kind of have one. So it’s a little bit different mentality to always be accountable.”