Nat Borchers serves as recognizable touchstone for Portland Timbers
COLUMBUS, Ohio --
For a central defender, Nat Borchers stands out. Part of it is his presence and his willingness to fight and scrap in every battle. Part of it is the way he carries himself on and off the field. Part of it is the way he connects with his teammates and leads them through the fire. And the rest is about his beard.
The increasingly famous growth on the Portland Timbers defender's chin emerged through collective aspirations. Borchers started the process when he played for Real Salt Lake and the Claret and Cobalt proceeded toward MLS Cup two years ago. He continued it when RSL fell to Sporting Kansas City on penalties in the frozen tundra at Sporting Park. He used it to signify the desire to secure his second title after winning it all with RSL in 2009.
"When I started out in 2013 with the goal of shaving it when we won, we didn't," Borchers ahead of the final against Columbus on Sunday. "It's two years later. Here we are again. The goal was to shave it at the end of a MLS Cup championship."
Not even a location change altered that objective. RSL shipped him to the Timbers after last season to ease a salary budget crisis and free up playing time for other central defenders. Borchers formed a key component in that vaunted RSL core, but his age (34) and the desire to renew that bedrock sent him elsewhere.
Borchers stepped into a team craving his experience and his solidity in the heart of the back four. There were fundamental building blocks in place -- Liam Ridgewell kept the defense together last season, while Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana emerged as valued regulars -- to ensure a firmer foundation. Borchers wasted no time in his bid to adapt to the new circumstances and fit into his new surroundings.
"Before he joined, I was back home in London," Ridgewell explained. "He just gave me a text. We just had a brief conversation about playing and what we both like. It was simply, really: We both like to defend, we both like to keep clean sheets. At the end of the day, it makes it easy, really."
The common ground and the structure in place paved the way for one of the league's top defensive records.
Borchers assumed considerable responsibility in that back four and stitched everything together with his commitment and his performances. The improvements elsewhere -- including the arrival of Adam Kwarasey in goal, the steady partnership between Borchers and Ridgewell in the middle, the strides made by Powell and Villafana and the willing closing by Diego Chara in midfield -- transformed the Timbers into a defiant side always capable of frustrating the opposition.
"It was there before I came with Jorge, Liam, Alvas as well as Papa [Norberto Paparatto]," Borchers said. "We had four very good players on this team. When I came in, it wasn't a whole lot of change that I had to make. Everyone was bought into the defending and the balance in the attack. That's really important in the league."
It is also important to have that touchstone in place to bond everything together. Borchers served in that role alongside Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler with RSL for six years. His precise defending -- always in the right place despite a lack of searing pace, always willing to throw himself into the mix to get the job done -- made him a good fit with the Timbers
Portland coach Caleb Porter and general manager Gavin Wilkinson identified Borchers as someone capable of pulling everything together. Borchers responded by renewing his credentials as one of the league's top defenders this season and submitting his best campaign in several years.
Combine those performances with his influential role off-the-field and the move worked out ideally for a team in desperate need of his particular qualities. His displays in this postseason -- punctuated by his goal in the first leg and his stunning block in the final seconds of the Western Conference final against FC Dallas -- highlighted his vital role in the Timbers' success.
"He's needed to be important all year, in every single game," Porter said. "He's delivered in every way we had hoped he'd deliver. He's experienced in the locker room. On the pitch, he's winning balls, blocking shots, organizing the line. We feel like in Ridgy and him, we have two very good central defenders. When you add on Jorge and Alvas, there's a reason why we've had 13 shutouts and been so good defensively. We're going to need him to do what he's been doing."
This last hurdle remains a tricky one, as Borchers knows all too well. Columbus poses a considerable threat with Kei Kamara (if he is deemed fit after sustaining a right leg injury on Saturday) to lead the line and a host of creative figures to supply him. There is pressure ahead given the trip to Columbus and the weight of delivering Portland's first professional soccer title.
It is a challenge Borchers understands well by now. He is tried and tested in major finals. This is the last hurdle left. And it falls upon his shoulders to help teammates to emerge from the crowd once more and secure the result required to shave off that beard at long last.