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Sandy • Jeff Cassar pulled Chris Schuler aside earlier this week knowing that he'd have to provide an extra spark of motivation to the 6-foot-4 center back.

On the docket in the 2017 season-opener was one of Major League Soccer's most physical strikers in Jozy Altidore. The U.S. men's national team staple has proven to be more than a handful for central defenders over the years, and RSL's head coach knew that.

He told Schuler that Real Salt Lake's opener would demand his presence, to go to battle with Altidore for 90 minutes at Rio Tinto Stadium. And that's exactly what the 29-year-old defender got Saturday afternoon.

"I think he got stronger as the game went on," Cassar said. "I thought it was really encouraging."

The Altidore vs. Schuler match-up went several rounds. Early on, Schuler whiffed on a clearance attempt in the box in the ninth minute and Altidore almost pounced to put it in the back of the net, but goalkeeper Nick Rimando slapped it away. Schuler settled down and went toe-to-toe with Toronto's multi-million dollar forward the entire day.

And in doing so, he showed glimpses of his peak self that has unfortunately just flashed in spurts over the years as Schuler's injury-riddled past has kept him on the sideline far more than in the starting lineup.

After making just five appearances in 2015 and working his way back to a first-team deal and minutes a year ago, it seems Schuler is primed to keep his name in the starting center back conversation.

"[The] crazy thing about Chris is no matter how long he's out, he doesn't seem to miss a beat," said right back Tony Beltran. "I remember the year we went to the championship in 2013, he was out for majority of the year and he came back and he always brings it … Chris is a game-changing player for our team and I thought he was fantastic tonight."

Much of the week's pre-opener chatter revolved around trying to slow annual MVP candidate Sebastian Giovinco. Yet if not for Schuler's bout with Altidore, it's hard to envision RSL keeping a zero in the first match of the year. The two tangled regularly, so often that referee Allen Chapman let the rough-and-tumble stuff go for a while before blowing his whistle and signaling a certain direction.

More often than not, it left Altidore with his hands up in the air or slapping the pitch in Sandy in frustration.

"It was physical," Altidore told The Toronto Sun. "Sometimes you get those calls, sometimes you don't. I thought [the referee] let a bit go today .. but [RSL's defenders] did their job. They were tough to play against."

Rimando, who has commanded the RSL back line since Schuler was drafted by the club in 2010, said the first few matches of any season are never going to be perfect. But said he was encouraged by Schuler's battle against one of the league's best.

"I think he knows that he needs to be sharper," Rimando said. "These games are quick, fast, but he knows he can play at this level."

Does Saturday's performance lock him in for next weekend in his hometown of Chicago? Cassar said the competition resets Tuesday morning in Sandy. Justen Glad is expected to return from U-20 national team duty and Aaron Maund (hamstring strain) is nearing full-go.

"Competition is really going to push this defensive group," Cassar said. "They know they have to or they'll lose their spot. When guys play with urgency like they did tonight, good things happen."

Twitter: @chriskamrani