Chris Schuler has spent much of his MLS career dealing with recurring injuries, but 2014 was different. The towering center back played over 2,000 minutes for Real Salt Lake, and along the way, he showed immense quality.
Schuler, in 2013, played only 16 matches, missing the rest through recurrent injuries but making his triumphant return just in time for the MLS Cup playoffs, where he was perhaps the best player on the field in two or three matches. In 2014, he played 25 - an incredible gain for a player who'd missed out so many times in the past.
Having suffered repeated issues in his foot - stress fractures, mostly - Schuler was given more flexible training regimens by RSL coach Jeff Cassar, and it would certainly see Schuler's fitness was the benefactor. He missed a match here or there, but nothing like the four months he missed in 2013.
His quality hadn't waned in that time, and his fitness was just as much there as it ever was. But the recurring injuries diminished. The longest stretch of matches he missed? Three at the end of the regular season, and the only reason he wasn't involved there was because of a peculiarly obtained broken face - orbital bones, sinuses, things of the like. Nat Borchers collided with Schuler, and the results were devastating. Schuler recovered successfully and was able to play in at least one good playoff game (and one game that I've convinced myself never took place) wearing a rather spectacular and comprehensive mask.
The highlight of Schuler's season may be scoring two first-half goals against D.C. United, which is particularly notable after the troubles Real Salt Lake faced in matches against the capitol-dwellers in 2013. He's a good finisher - we've seen that in the 2013 playoffs and this season - and he'll do well to continue that as he's partnered by Jamison Olave - or perhaps some other defender we've yet to know definitive news about.
Finding a solid partnership with Olave will be high on Schuler's list. He played with him frequently in 2011, but much of his time that year was spent at left back, where he was learning the trade in an unfamiliar position. His combinations with Olave would have been substantially different than they will be in 2015, but the understanding that comes with playing alongside a defender and recognizing their tendencies and attributes can't be ignored.
It comes as no surprise that Chris Schuler was Real Salt Lake's best defender in 2014. His rise to the top of the club has been praised high and low, and it will, at some point, earn him a national team call-up. January might be a reasonable target for such an action - and if it all goes according to plan, he'll be at the apex of his career during the 2018 World Cup. (But let's not get ahead of ourselves here, shall we?)
Schuler is one of those players over whom it's hard to not become effusive. His physical attributes might be the first point of discussion for many - he's towering, after all - but they're underpinned by a very strong technical foundation. He's good with the ball at his feet, which, for a big man, is a mean feat. He's intelligent in his defensive movement, and he communicates positioning actively. He's gone from an unassuming defender who needed to raise his voice to a vocal leader in the defensive line, marshalling the team effectively and efficiently.
2015 could be a pinnacle year for Schuler. If he continues to play most games for Real Salt Lake and remains free of the injuries that have plagued his career, he'll be in line for national team considerations. It would be more than a feather in the cap of the 27-year-old - it would be a tremendous achievement for one of the most exciting defensive players MLS has to offer.
Editor's note: This is part of a series of player profiles recapping the 2014 season and previewing the 2015 season. Player ratings were compiled via a vote by RSL Soapbox writers. Statistics are via mlssoccer.com.