A year ago, talking about Chris Schuler joining a USL side was sort of like heresy.
Schuler had just come off the back of a good season in which he missed matches only for a completely incidental injury, and he'd started 2015 in good fitness. It seemed, if only for a moment, that he was back to playing regularly.
After a few weeks of the season, that was no longer the case. He succumbed to injury once again, and he underwent a meniscus repair surgery that should have kept him out for four to six weeks. Just over two months after that surgery, he returned — only to disappear with what was, in some estimations, a minor, non-controversial injury.
Two months after playing his last match of the 2015 campaign in July, Schuler underwent surgery to repair a fractured left foot. That was supposed to keep him out for four to six months — and we're just now entering the sixth month of that layoff.
There are hopes within the team that Schuler can return to full fitness after that surgery, but there's also some necessary skepticism. He's now joined Real Monarchs for the season. Why? There are a number of reasons.
A chance to be given playing time
Obviously, players should be earning playing time and not being given it outright. But there are always some exceptions, and this is one: Chris Schuler is a veteran MLS player, and he's shown that when he's fit, he's extremely good. By extremely good, of course, I mean "top of the league" caliber. That's an incredible feat for a player with 72 regular season starts in six years — that's only 12 a year.
A chance to play regular minutes
One easy way to see how Schuler has struggled is by comparing his cumulative minutes over his MLS career to that of a player who might be considered "injury prone" under normal conditions.
Here, we're looking at Jamison Olave, who has never played 30 regular season games in a year. And obviously, we're dealing with a slight issue because Schuler hasn't always been first-choice, and that's limited his minutes near the beginning somewhat. But this chart also shows the progression of minutes over the years, so there's at least something to consider.
What we need to see from Schuler is how he copes with regular minutes. Obviously, he's good enough mentally and has the potential physically, but he needs to be tested in a week-in, week-out environment. That's the sort of thing he can't get at Real Salt Lake, because it throws the team into disarray.
A chance to be first-choice
Real Monarchs' results don't really matter. the team exists as a developmental effort, not as a shot to win the league. That's not to say that winning doesn't matter, but it matters more in and of itself, not as a cumulation of points.
In that way, it matters less if the team is discontinuous, and if Schuler has to play a match, then sit out a match. You can rotate defenders at a lower level, because overall, it doesn't matter if the team can't string together wins. It matters that the group playing in each match has a good shot at it, that they make the most of their potential and abilities, and that they learn to cope with difficult circumstances. A constantly changing lineup is one of those things.
In that way, Chris Schuler can step in and be a first choice center back — but he doesn't have to play every game. If he's not ready initially to grind through a season, then there's no reason to force him to.
A chance to stay in Salt Lake
Chris Schuler quite clearly likes it in Salt Lake City. RSL general manager Craig Waibel told Salt Lake Tribune reporter Chris Kamrani that Schuler wants to stay in the organization.
Chris' intention, and he's made this very known to me because this was a pretty sensitive topic, he wants to be with this organization. This is where he wants to be. He wants to stay here. Right now, I don't really have the mindset that he would ever go anywhere else.
A chance to work his way back to RSL
If Schuler is healthy, there's no doubt that we want him playing first-team minutes. But, as above, he's the sort of player that's good enough to be first-choice, and as a result, becomes your first-choice option. Now, that's all fine and good for a player who can play 25 to 34 matches in a year, but less than that, and you're playing with salary cap fire.
For Schuler to return to Salt Lake, he has to prove he's not a risk for Craig Waibel's squad. He must show that the salary cap hit he incurs — which should be significant, given he's a top-level MLS defender — isn't going to be wasted on the bench.