After a breakout rookie season, Olympic hopeful Schulte eyes MLS Cup
December 07, 2023
ON SATURDAY, the Columbus Crew will host Los Angeles FC in MLS Cup and it will be a huge task for Patrick Schulte. The Crew goalkeeper has been one of the team’s breakthrough performers this season and has made some game-changing saves so far in the playoffs, but now he will be tasked with protecting the Crew’s goal against a team whose attack features Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga.
By all accounts, it has been a big and transformative year for Schulte who made his first-team debut in February, won the starting job over veteran Eloy Room, started 36 MLS games, and one in Leagues Cup where the Crew defeated Club America 4-1. It wasn’t always smooth sailing and he made mistakes earlier in the season, but Schulte worked through it and always had the backing of manager Wilfried Nancy.
The path to the final has been a tough one for Schulte and the Crew. In the first round, they needed three games to get past Atlanta. Then in the second round, they defeated Orlando 2-0 in extra time and Schulte was given the Man of the Match after making several big saves in extra time.
Schulte saves the day for the Crew. I have him as the #2 goalkeeper on the U.S Olympic team behind Slonina. This is a big time save pic.twitter.com/10QnEfkfGB— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) November 26, 2023
In the Eastern Conference final, the Crew came away with another big away win, this time against Supporters Shield winning FC Cincinnati. But trailing 2-0 at half in a very tough place for an away team to win, the Crew mounted one of the best comebacks in MLS playoff history en route to a 3-2 extra time victory. Again, Schulte needed to make big saves, including a 51st minute beauty on Aaron Boupendza which kept the Crew in the game.
“It was a crazy one,” Schulte told ASN in Columbus. “Fun, now looking back on it. Going down 2-0, you're not out of it. At 3-0, it becomes an even bigger task. So that was my goal in keeping myself locked in. I look at it as, okay, keep it shut up for the rest of the game and give the guys up front that have been scoring goals all year a chance to do their do their thing. At halftime, that was that was the message as well - stay calm, stay cool.”
But on Saturday, one more hurdle awaits the Crew and that is LAFC who are not only the defending champions but also boast an attack that features Bouanga, who has 37 goals in 46 games across all competitions in 2023, and Vela, who has been named to the league’s Best XI three times.
“We know the guys that are on their team, Vela and Bouanga, but also Hollingshead and other guys and how dangerous they can be in transition, how dangerous these guys can be individually 1v1 but also as well as set pieces,” Schulte explained. “They scored the most goals on corner kicks. It's just being switched on at all times and knowing where these threats are at and trying to limit them as best we can.”
Of course, Schulte’s rise within Columbus has also generated headlines because it comes on the heels of him winning the inaugural season of MLS Next Pro in 2022 with Columbus Crew 2. After he was drafted in 2022 by Columbus with the 12th overall pick, the club used the new league to develop Schulte and give him games.
Schulte was named the MLS Next Pro Goalkeeper of the Year that season where he made 18 starts. He believes that season was critical for his development, and it allowed him to move into 2023 in a position to compete with Room for the starting job with the first team.
“It was vital. Last year, mentally, my first year as a pro, I'd say there were a lot more downs than ups for my mental side,” Schulte said of the 2022 season with the Crew 2. “It was a great steppingstone just to play games, play in a long season that I wasn't used to while I was in college. Going through those battles and being able to go down there and play with and against guys that are eager to grow and develop was a huge help.”
Following the transition to the first team, Nancy expected Schulte to go through tough times but said that the most impressive thing was how he responded to mistakes – something he believes will help him in his career.
“It's been a rollercoaster – can I say that for him? – a bit. It's normal because first year as the first goalkeeper in MLS so I knew that he would fail, and I always told him that the objective is not about how he's going to fail; it's how he's going to react," Nancy said. "All the year, he was able to accept the challenge... What I like about Pat is he has improved a lot and he is courageous now. In the past he was like that, but in difficult moments, as a human being, he was a bit backpedaling. Now, he's able to understand that the only way to provoke something is to go get it.”
Also at the heart of Schulte’s development as a player is the place where he was born and raised, the greater St. Louis area. Throughout the history of soccer in the Untied States, St. Louis has played a big role dating back to the times just before and after World War 2. That has carried forward to this day with U.S. national team players Josh Sargent and Tim Ream coming from the city and the enthusiasm for St. Louis City SC in its inaugural MLS season in 2023 which proved to be a tough ticket for home games.
Schulte was born in the northern suburb of St. Charles and spent time with the academy team of St. Louis FC, the former USL Championship club. He then attended St. Louis University (which has produced U.S. World Cup veterans Mike Sorber, Brian McBride, Brad Davis, and Ream along with Bosnian World Cup veteran Vedad Ibisevic) where he was a standout player for three seasons before turning professional. During college, he also played with St. Louis Scott Gallagher in USL League Two.
After coming through the city’s biggest soccer hubs, Schulte’s is very much tied to the city wherever he goes.
“My heart is always in Saint Louis,” Schulte said. “I love that city. To be able to grow up with such a soccer culture - there was always guys from past generations or older than me that I could look up to that were also always around to help. Everyone grew up playing soccer there. It wasn't like a foreign sport to people there.”
As Schulte’s 2023 season ends this weekend with the potential to lift a trophy, it sets the stage for an even bigger 2024. In addition to continuing to keep the Crew among the league’s elite, Schulte is also in the running to make the U.S. Olympic team. The U-23 age group, which will make up all but three of the team’s roster spots, is very deep at goalkeeper with Schulte, Gaga Slonina who is at Eupen in Belgium on loan from Chelsea, and Chris Brady at the Chicago Fire all performing well with starting jobs.
Those three players are all battling for two Olympic spots but Schulte knows his performances at the Crew will be a deciding factor and being the starter for the potential MLS Cup winner would be a big resume booster.
“If it was even soccer or swimming or any sport, being able to watch the Olympics as a kid and to think that I have a chance to do the same and represent my country at the Olympics would be a huge honor,” Schulte said, “I'd love to be there in Paris come summer of 2024. But I have to focus on right now and my club. Success with the Crew will give me a good shot at making that team.”
Looking back, Schulte doesn’t want to say he’s exceeded his expectations because it’s been a learning process that has required him to fight through some tough moments and learn to embrace the present, which how carries with it the huge significance of being a final.
“I wouldn't say I have exceeded my expectations,” Schulte said. “I set a high bar for myself… But honestly, over the years just dealing with mistakes that I've made, learning the mental side of playing week in and week out has been a big growth... I'm 22, so I just try to embrace it all. I know I'm going to have these ups and downs, but not let those ups and downs kind of carry me away.”
“But if you said at the beginning of the year I would be playing in a final, I wouldn't have believed it. But here I am, week 48 and we're going to be playing in a final. I am just trying to take it all in and enjoy the moment.”