This time last year, Nat Borchers was beginning his recovery from quadricep surgery. The nagging muscle was bugging the vet since 2011, and it was high time it was taken care of. Initial reports were that Real Salt Lake weren't expecting him back until possibly May. Luckily the center back made his RSL first team debut in 2013 in late March, a 2-0 loss to FC Dallas in Frisco.
Borchers' season was par for the course. Always ranked high on minutes played, he registered 2,520 minutes, second only to Ned Grabavoy with 2,688. Although his return in the Dallas match was a tad mixed, Borchers went on to be the usual rock of the back line throughout the year. He's also set to once again equal his involvement with the team this season. Barring any unforeseen injuries, expect him to play in at least 27 games in 2014 as he has not played in less than 25 MLS matches since his rookie year in 2003 (all but one being starts).
Like a good center back, he stayed out of the limelight in 2013 (apart from that inadvertent handball in the box at Vancouver), his name being whispered in the media rather than shouted. That's not an easy task when your partner in central defense is virtually determined via roulette wheel from week to week.
Borchers had a total of five partners over the course of the season. Whether it was working with an inexperienced youngster in need of a veteran presence (Carlos Salcedo) to pairing with two different stand-ins for a handful of games (Brandon McDonald and Aaron Maund) to a second string defender in need of minutes with the first team (Kwame Watson-Siriboe) -- the fact that Borchers was able to play consistently well regardless of who the soccer gods chose to stand next to him is testament to the type of player he is. Not least among his traits: strong communication skills, natural leadership, solidarity in performance, flexibility with personnel, and a calming presence.
This last point might be the most important of all. Similar to how having a reliable goalkeeper between the pipes gives the rest of the team the ability to confidently play their game, a defender that can calm those around him will convince his teammates to play naturally, without frantic decision-making that can put the unit in precarious situations. To me, this was best seen when he played together with Chris Schuler.
The last quarter of the season is where Borchers, and the whole RSL defense, started to shine. Finally being paired with Schuler on a consistent basis, the tandem showed what the club's central defense could look like for the season ahead, provided health remains positive. The synergy that seems to exist between the two should rub off on the back line as a whole, as well as parts of the midfield. As we saw during the playoff run to MLS Cup, the defensive side of RSL's game was much more stable and organized when the central defensive pairing was consistent.
What lies beyond 2014 is a bit hazy as the so-called "White Rhino" turns 33 years old in April. His best days are admittedly behind him, and as the club begins thinking about the future of the position, either grooming an existing player or bringing in another with Borchers' abilities is going to be a necessity. The upcoming season will be huge for this transference of wisdom and mantle provided Schuler is the man the club wants. For this reason, emphasizing the tandem of Borchers/Schuler should be one of the chief priorities for the year.
Editor's note: This is part of a series of player profiles recapping the 2013 season and previewing the 2014 season. Player ratings were compiled via a vote by RSL Soapbox writers. Statistics are via mlssoccer.com.