SANTA CLARA -- The Earthquakes' Billy Schuler has one of the most difficult positions in Major League Soccer: He's Chris Wondolowski's backup.

Schuler not only must go against one of the league's best all-time scorers but Wondolowski also is admired for his iron man qualities. The guy never leaves a game.

As a result, Schuler must be patient in his first season in MLS after spending two years in the Swedish second division at Hammarby IF.

But when the points-starved Earthquakes (0-2-1) play host to the Columbus Crew on Sunday at Buck Shaw Stadium, the 5-foot-11 Schuler plans to be ready to help them earn their first victory of the season.

Just in case.

"When Coach is ready to put you in there can't be any lapses in form," he said Friday after practice.

Schuler is one of six Quakes forwards, but half of them are towering target men. Mike Fucito and Schuler are the most obvious options as second forward were something to happen to Wondolowski.

Then again, coach Mark Watson also could call upon Portuguese newcomer Yannick Djalo, a natural attacking midfielder, to move into the second striker role.

Schuler, who turns 24 in two weeks, knew he'd have to earn a place with the Quakes. He also knew it will take time after injuries limited his minutes in Sweden. Schuler scored two goals in 26 appearances in two seasons.

It was far from the impressive output that made him a star at the University of North Carolina from 2008-11.

He chose to play abroad instead of signing a Generation Adidas contract and probably being one of the top three picks in the 2012 MLS draft.

"It was a risky decision to go overseas," North Carolina coach Carlos Somoano said Saturday. "Time will tell whether it worked out."

But at the time Schuler left the States "I was extremely optimistic about everything," he said.

Why not? He had just helped Carolina win an NCAA championship, and had been a scoring sensation at Peddie School in New Jersey, in college and with the U.S. under-17 team.

But the cold reality of professional soccer took hold after two years in Sweden. Schuler joined MLS this year after Hammarby declined to pick up an option as the club changed coaches and directions. San Jose won the right to sign the striker in a lottery with Real Salt Lake.

Watson has preached patience but didn't hold back, either. He has told Schuler chances of playing will be limited.

"With injuries come opportunities," Watson said in an interview. "He's making a point every day to play more."

Schuler moved up the depth chart last week with starting target forward Steven Lenhart lost for at least a month with a knee injury. But Lenhart's absence probably gives second-year target man Adam Jahn an opportunity more than Schuler.

He will have a better chance of appearing in games if Wondolowski is called into the U.S. national team camp in preparation for the World Cup.

For the time being, all Schuler can do is try to improve while hoping to see action in U.S. Open Cup games or reserve matches.

The rocky start in professional soccer has not dented Schuler's confidence. He describes his game as working well in tight spaces and pushing the ball down field.

"I like to go at players and maybe add a little more passing on the ground," he said.

Now he just needs a chance to do it.

sunday's game

Columbus (3-1-0) at Earthquakes (0-2-1), noon. CSN-Plus