Friday November 27th, 2015

At first, it was natural to focus on what was lost. Nat Borchers had been at Real Salt Lake for seven seasons. The central defender was an integral part of a core that forged one of MLS's most distinctive and enduring identities, had reached four major finals and had claimed the 2009 league title. He’d started a family in Utah and figured he’d remain there for the rest of his career.

Then the business of soccer intruded. Borchers’s contract was up, and the RSL brain trust, led by former general manager Garth Lagerwey and coach Jeff Cassar, felt the time was right to make a move.

“I was willing to take a pay cut to stay there,” Borchers told SI.com. “At the end of the day, they wanted to go younger and they wanted to go cheaper in terms of salary cap and it’s a gamble. They wanted to make those changes.… Personally, I felt as though I was leaving something I loved and that was really special to me.”

RSL recognized that bond and offered Borchers a say in his destination. Portland had been his favorite road trip since the Timbers entered MLS in 2011, but the club’s interest “kind of came out of nowhere,” he said. Soon, he was on the phone with coach Caleb Porter.

“He freely admitted that he thought he tinkered a bit too much in 2014, just with the lineup, and he said he made some mistakes. I thought that was very genuine of him to come out and say that and you could tell he was ready to be more pragmatic,” Borchers recalled. “He really impressed me, just with the way he thinks about the game and with his ideas for [2015] and his ambition. I was sold on him from the start.”

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Portland boasted the league’s third-most prolific attack in 2014, but it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs as the Timbers yielded 52 goals. That July, the club acquired English Premier League veteran Liam Ridgewell, and though the move came too late to save the season, his organizational ability, grit and composure helped solidify Portland toward the end of the campaign. The Timbers finished 2014 with three shutouts, and in the off-season, they signed Ghanaian-Norwegian goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey. A new defensive spine was in place.

“We felt we needed a top-level central defender that had experience playing against top-level attackers," Porter said ahead of last weekend’s 3–1 win over FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference finals. "You’ve seen the movement of attacking players coming into this league, and a lot of them are world class. Our thought was if we want to manage some of those attacking players, we need someone that has experience at a very high level, and that’s why we signed Ridgewell."

“We wanted to look for someone in the league to partner with him,” Porter added. “We thought it was important to have someone next to him that has experience in MLS that has been in the trenches, who knows the attacking players in the league inside and out, who knows the dynamics and challenges that you have to deal with on a week-to-week basis.”

For Porter, Borchers represented a solution to those issues; he symbolized the new pragmatism. For Borchers, now 34, the Timbers were a team not too dissimilar from the one he’d left. Portland was a smaller market, where pro soccer occupied a place close to center stage, and the bond between the team and its fans was strong—in Portland’s case, four decades strong. Among the pioneers at RSL, Borchers wondered how he’d fit in to a culture that already was so firmly established. But it turns out there was plenty of room for a healthy dose of defensive commitment, some big-game clutch and that spectacular beard.

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“You always have that feeling that you have to prove yourself,”​ Borchers said. “I always want to perform well, but especially for them. The fans here get their first impression of you, and you want it to be good. I felt like I was on good terms from day one with these guys. I don’t know why that is—if it's the beard or the Salt Lake thing. But just being downtown and talking to supporters, the biggest one for me was meeting Timber Jim. Seeing highlights of him on YouTube and learning the story about his daughter and why they sing ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ That kind of thing gives you goosebumps, and you get a sense of how much of a family it is.”

Portland started slowly this season and was 2-3-3 through April, but the defense held firm as Porter’s team sorted itself out further up the field. It had seven shutouts in 2014 (four in the first 31 games) but already had notched 10 by the time Borchers and the Timbers traveled to Rio Tinto Stadium for an Aug. 16 reunion with RSL. The match was scoreless deep into stoppage time, when Borchers headed home the winner off a Portland corner kick. He jogged a few steps and dropped to his knees, overwhelmed by the moment.

“I was saying the whole time that I didn’t want closure because I always wanted to be a part of Salt Lake. But honestly, for my own sake, for my family’s sake, I did need to move on,” he said. “I definitely don’t feel like a tourist anymore. I feel like I’m part of the group, a part of the community. It took some time. It didn’t happen right away, but I think after that game, we just felt fully invested and fortunate to be here, for sure.”

Borchers, his wife Crystal, their son Lincoln and a sibling to come have made a home in suburban Lake Oswego. Back at Providence Park, his partnership with Ridgewell took root. The Timbers finished the season in second place with four wins in five games and tied for the MLS lead with 13 shutouts. The league’s 14th-ranked defense one year ago rose to third (tied with two others) as the number of goals conceded plunged from 52 to 39. This was a team now built to make the playoffs and win once it got there.

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“It’s worked out like we had hoped it would with those two guys pairing together,” Porter said. “I think the balance of having a guy like Ridgewell, who is very clean on the ball, left-sided, good at starting attacks—he’s a really vocal leader and I would call more of a positional central defender in how he reads the game. You look at Nat, and he’s a guy that wants to win balls. He likes to get in confrontations with attackers and battle and bang. We knew with Nat that he’d be a guy who would want to get clean sheets and would take pride in that.”

Said Borchers, “It was an easy transition to playing next to Liam.… When I came onto the team, I wanted him to be the leader and show me what he needed me to do to help him, and I think I’ve grown into the role. It was his back line before it was mine, and now it’s ours together. We’ve obviously a good partnership.”

They’re hardly the fastest defenders in the league, but their ability to organize the collective, tackle, step into passing lanes and win balls in the air has been critical. Their on-field substance is accompanied by some off-field style: Borchers and Ridgewell, who’s 31, are affable and articulate and both look the Portland part. The latter has pretty much given up on his facial hair, unable to compete with Borchers’s mythic effort, but both now are beloved throughout Providence Park’s raucous north end.

Discussing Borchers on SI’s Planet Fútbol podcast, Porter said, “I’ve learned that I’d rather give up a goal where a guy actually gets beat because it’s a great goal or a great play then to worry every game that my central defender is going to get beat mentally and tune out. I knew with Nat, we’d have a guy that would never tune out.… I want a guy like that on my team, who can be the conscience, almost an extension of me—a guy who’s going to make sure everyone’s dialed in for 90 minutes.”

The intangibles they provide have been evident especially during these MLS Cup playoffs. In the knockout-round game against Sporting Kansas City, Borchers and Ridgewell shot second and third in the penalty kick tiebreaker—not very central defender-like. But each scored while Kwarasey made two saves and notched the winner in the epic 11-rounder. Portland then ousted the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Western semifinals, 2–0, on aggregate, as the Timbers’ Cascadia rival managed to put just five shots on target in 180 minutes of play.

Against top-seeded Dallas last Sunday, Ridgewell lifted Portland to a first-half lead with his first goal of the season. Dairon Asprilla had gotten a head to Darlington Nagbe’s corner kick, and Ridgewell alertly followed the play and put the ball past goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.

Dallas scored in the 62nd to cut Portland’s lead to 2–1 and likely would have been happy to enter Sunday’s decider in Frisco, Texas down only one goal on aggregate. But Borchers had other ideas. Ridgewell left the match in the 61st minute with a calf injury; his replacement, Norberto Paparatto, leaned in and headed Nagbe’s stoppage-time corner kick toward Gonzalez. Borchers beat Dallas counterpart Matt Hedges to the loose ball, took one stab at it and then a second as he fell.

Borchers told reporters following the game that the goal was “kind of like chopping a tree down. I finally got it in.”

It was a perfect metaphor, and there was no solemn celebration this time.The defender raced toward the corner flag, arms outstretched, soaking in the moment and the adoration of fans in his new home.

“That’s what we get to experience at every home game. It’s so much fun to play here. I think every player in the league wants to have that,” Borchers said.

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The Timbers (17-11-10) now are 90 minutes from the MLS Cup final and the club’s first championship game appearance since the original NASL iteration played for the 1975 title. They’ll have to hold off high-powered Dallas (19-12-6) on Sunday afternoon, but it’s a task that suddenly doesn’t seem so daunting for a team with different, more practical ideals and more mature match management. Portland’s seven-game unbeaten streak—during which it has yielded six goals—is the longest, by far, among the four MLS Cup semifinalists.

“We’ve made a lot of progress since 2013. I think the biggest thing you’ve seen is just more seasoning, more experience, more maturity … I think ultimately that’s what’s going to carry us hopefully to the Cup, that maturity and experience,” Porters said after Sunday’s win. “[Borchers and Ridgewell] are battle tested. They are experienced. We did feel going into this series that would be a strength of ours. Dallas is explosive. They’re youthful and exciting. We put in a few grizzly vets.”

Ridgewell’s participation on Sunday isn’t certain; Porter has said it’ll be a game-time decision. But Borchers will be there, back and center, ready to make the difference and help inspire his new club to a place he’s been before. He also said he’s ready to shave after this year’s MLS Cup. The beard is a remnant of RSL’s 2013 run, but if Borchers helps guide the Timbers there, he won’t need it to confirm his status as a new club icon.

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