For a professional soccer player, Nat Borchers stands out. In soccer it is mostly the goal scoring strikers or playmaking midfielders that claim the glory and, along with it, the recognition. For even casual fans it is easy to point to Leonel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and say they are the best soccer player the world has ever seen. Their ability to manipulate the ball shimmers in the eyes of star-struck fans everywhere; like children, they watch and dream about the possibilities with these players. But least we forget the defenders, Borchers is here to remind us all of their importance.
The 6-foot-2 defender with a fiery red beard anchors any backline he is on. Never shying away from a tussle, Borchers makes his presence known to all the players around him – teammate and opponent alike. He plays conservatively on the field, shielding his goalkeeper and coming up with awe inspiring blocks, but he is anything but off the pitch. He carries himself like a professional, with loyalty and appreciation for the fans that support him, and it is no wonder how he has become almost a cult figure in the league, and more importantly for Real Salt Lake.
Most of Borchers’ aura surrounds the way he plays on the pitch, and the rest is all about the beard. The hair he now sports on his chin dates back to the Claret-and-Cobalt’s 2013 MLS Cup run. Like NHL athletes, and the fans that support ice hockey like myself, he begun the superstitious practice of not shaving their facial hair during the playoffs. But instead of cutting it off after the heart-wrenching penalty shootout loss to Sporting Kansas City, he continued the process, adopting the nickname "The Beard," to signify his intent to secure his second MLS title after winning it with RSL in 2009.
"When I started out in 2013 with the goal of shaving it when we won, we didn't," Borchers told SBI ahead of the final against Columbus last year. "It's two years later. Here we are again. The goal was to shave it at the end of a MLS Cup championship."
But still, not even claiming the MLS’s highest honors has changed his appearance.
It has been 15 months since RSL shipped Borchers to the Timbers amid a salary crisis. Before that he excelled with the Colorado Rapids’ developmental and first squads and Odd Grenland in Norway. Borchers formed an essential piece of RSL’s valued veteran core, but upon learning of his impending trade was given the opportunity to select his next destination and he choice to follow a desire to be that same defensive bedrock he was with the Claret-and-Cobalt.
Since they starting playing in MLS in 2011, the Portland Timbers struggled with defensive consistency. European veterans came and went in Portland as they leaked goals. Even the brilliance of Caleb Porter found it vexing and he craved the experience that a MLS veteran could provide in the back four. Enter Nat Borchers.
Stepping into the heart of the Timbers’ backline, Borchers instantly became the glue that held the defense together. The fundamental groundwork was already there with Liam Ridgewell, Alvas Powell, and Jorge Villafana. The veteran MLS gelled nicely into his new role adapting to new circumstances with the wingback tendencies of Powell and Villafana, while also playing the commentary role to the more liberal Ridgewell. In all, his addition paved the way for the Timbers to claim one of the league’s top defensive records.
But this was nothing new for Borchers who had done something similar with the Claret-and-Cobalt years before. Borchers and Jamison Olave formed a dynamic partnership with RSL that peaked when the defensive pairing secured the fewest goals allowed in a season , with 20, in 2010. He then led the RSL backline to the aforementioned 2013 MLS Cup Final and even donned the captain's armband a few times in the absence of Kyle Beckerman.
In many ways, the trade of Nat Borchers sunk the Claret-and-Cobalt in one way or another. Not only did his absence forebode RSL's defensive struggles in 2015 but also the center back problem the club is currently facing. It was also the figurative straw that broke the camel's back in the case of Garth Lagerwey and Dell Loy Hansen's friendship, or so we have been lead to believe. Borchers' exit did potentially open the door for Carlos Salcedo to take a larger role in the club, but we all know how that ended up.
Each time these two clubs meet, RSL fans are left brooding on what could have been, but once again we find ourselves face-to-face with Nat Borchers.
For many fans - myself included - he is and will be firmly ingrained into the history and culture of this club. It seems like only yesterday that "Fear the Beard" posters hung in the confines of Rio Tinto or when the Bearded One faced off against Brian 'Dunny" Dunseth in the crossbar challenge. Again, he was and still is a model of consistency - missing less than 10 MLS regular season matches in his seven year stint with RSL. The one time MLS Defender of the Year runner-up has all the technical qualities to be a starting centerback and the leadership abilities to organize any defense.
The once-bright future we were promised with Nat's exit has yet to materialize, making the sting all the more noticeable.
Unable to secure a starting quality centerback out of at least three reported candidates, the RSL backline is the weak-link to begin the 2016 season. As I have said before, and I am forced to say again, RSL's defense is lackluster so far in 2016. In the four competitive matches the club has played this year, the defense has conceded 43 shots. Of those 16 were on target which resulted in six goals. Another way to look at it is that the club's defense is allowing an average of 10.75 shots per 90 minutes and conceding 1.5 goals.
Still, when compared to Borchers and the Portland Timbers, albeit they have played half the number of competitive matches in 2016 and missing Captain Liam Ridgewell in their last match, there isn't much difference - and in fact RSL is better. So far the Portland Timbers have conceded 27 shots (13.5 per 90), eight on-target, and allowed three goals (1.5 per 90). In fact the only difference has been Portland not conceding late - which is a major strike against the RSL defense in my book.
What the stats don't show, however, is Borchers' talent and it is left to us to ponder if Borchers was still with RSL, would the club have dropped two points in Orlando or allowed the second goal in Monterrey, Mexico?
Borchers has proven time and time again that he is a quality defender, something that is lacking at RSL of late. It is this difference in quality that could result in where a club finishes in regard to the thin red line.
Regardless of anything else, RSL finds itself without Schuler and in desperate need of a defender which makes the Borchers trade leave fans with a bad taste in their mouths, while Portland is profiting from one of the best defensive forms for both the club and league.
As RSL faces Nat dressed in the deep green, let us think about the good times with RSL and the future possibilities - something like head coach or scout for the Claret-and-Cobalt. Like his lack of celebration after scoring the winning goal against RSL deep into stoppage time last August, let no fan celebrate, but still be thankful for, any kind of result against Portland on Saturday. #WeStandWithNat