Chris Schuler's return to fitness has been widely heralded, and with good reason. His defensive contributions have more than picked up where they left off early in the season - he's actually improved during that time.
It's a testament not to the player's ability - he has plenty of that, of course - but to his mentality. After coming back from a season-threatening injury, he's not hesitant, nor is he unsure in his play. His performance against LA Galaxy on Sunday is just the latest in that, and since coming back in that match against Vancouver, he's swiftly won his starting spot back.
Remarkably, despite playing just over half the available minutes, Schuler continues to lead RSL in interceptions - 78 in his 1530 minutes; Beckerman has 75 in 2370. That speaks to two things: First, given our penchant for maintaining possession and the stylistic decisions of our opponents, we are not near the top in interceptions (7th highest in the league, though); Schuler has completed the 30th highest in the league. We are given fewer opportunities for interceptions in part because opponents opt for an approach dependent on width. Second, when it does come down the middle, Chris Schuler is important in that he'll step forward and win the ball - which inevitably leads to a greater chance of error.
Jason Kreis, after the final regular season match against Chivas, said Schuler's improved play may be down to a dip earlier in the season when playing through injury.
"I think that he has been playing really well, even better than before he got injured," Kreis said. "My feeling is that maybe he was playing through some injury and that was causing him to put himself in some bad spots and make some bad decisions. But now he's had a long break and he's had to work extremely hard to get all fit and ready to play again. I think it's always the case when players come back from injury to have a new appreciation for what it means to be able to play soccer and not be injured. Just as old coaches have a new appreciation for what it would mean to be able to play soccer."
Chris Schuler's return to fitness hasn't been accompanied by results for Real Salt Lake, but it's difficult to peg him as the reason. A strong summer saw RSL in brilliant form, and a stop-start end to the season saw a chance at the Supporters Shield slip away. But Schuler's involvement in that was incidental to the form of the team - he has been, since returning, one of RSL's top players in every match.
With the playoffs in full swing, and with his fantastic performance against LA Galaxy in the first leg, his return can't have come sooner.