Nat Borchers' thirst for knowledge to aid Portland Timbers' title defense
When the 2016 Major League Soccer regular season kicks off on Sunday, Nat Borchers will be back anchoring the defense for the reigning MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers when they face Columbus Crew SC in a rematch of last year's final (4:30 ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).
Also returning will be his trademark beard.
It was just three months ago that Portland was hoisting its first MLS Cup after beating the Columbus Crew 2-1, and in the aftermath, various Timbers players took the opportunity to give Borchers' teeming mass of facial hair a good trimming.
"It barely survived," quipped Borchers. "It took some good shots from the [Dairon] Asprillas and the [Diego] Charas and the [Fanendo] Adis and the [Adam] Kwaraseys of the world. It managed to come out none the worse for wear and I'm hoping it's going to grow back to full strength by the end of the season."
The upcoming campaign will be Borchers' 14th as a professional, and aside from a two-year stint with Norwegian club Odd Grenland, all of them have been spent in MLS. He'll turn 35 in April, and a quick look at his résumé reveals he's accomplished plenty. He now has two MLS Cups to his name, has made three appearances for the U.S. national team and is widely respected around the league for his defending and tactical acumen.
So what keeps him going?
"I love competing," he said. "I love the day-to-day trainings, making myself better and other players better. I'm playing for a job just like everybody else, and I think as the league has gotten younger, faster and better, guys like me have to compete that much harder, so I always have a reason to prove myself when I get out on the pitch."
Yet Borchers isn't one to rely only on his competitiveness and accumulated playing experience to maintain his edge. Just four days after Portland won MLS Cup, Borchers was on a plane to Los Angeles for a nine-day coaching course where he obtained his USSF A license. He admitted that the trip was a tough sell to his wife, Crystal, and son, Lincoln, after a 10-month season, but Borchers said they understood, and he looked at it as a critical way of expanding his soccer knowledge.
"Being able to look at the game from a different perspective has enhanced my game a lot," he said. "Just trying to understand, 'OK, how is a coach looking at this situation? What kind of ideas is he trying to teach the players to get us to understand?'
"It was a humbling experience for me getting my A license because I don't have a lot of coaching experience. To go through that process, I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot more about the game. I think it's safe to say for me that when I got my B license, I was just going through the process of learning more about the game and just about other ways to help other players get better at this stage of my career. A lot of my job is getting guys in the right spots. That's kind of half the battle."
Borchers added that there hasn't been a better coach to learn from than current Timbers manager Caleb Porter, but when asked if he was looking to get into coaching once his playing days are over, he said he wasn't sure. He emphasized that the purpose of taking the course was to help him as a player now, not to enhance any future employment prospects.
Given that Borchers is looked at around the league as a tremendous organizer of a back line, it seems that tactically there wouldn't be much to be gained. But the Portland defender insisted that he learned plenty in this area. Whereas before he focused primarily on where his fellow defenders and holding midfielders were, his view has now expanded to see even further up field.
"What are the areas where you can get hurt, and what are the areas where you're strong? If you kind of have that in the back of your mind, you can get guys in better positions," he said. "You can talk to guys about where they need to be, and the midfield and forward positions are huge for the defensive side of things. When you're pressing, getting in good spots, and when you're in the low block getting in certain spots. I learned a lot about the midfield and forward positions."
As they aim for an MLS Cup repeat -- something only D.C. United, the Houston Dynamo and the LA Galaxy have done -- the Timbers will need every edge they can get, especially given the number of new faces in Portland.
Left-side players Jorge Villafana and Rodney Wallace have departed, replaced by the likes of Jermaine Taylor, Chris Klute and Ned Grabavoy. And Borchers' central partner Liam Ridgewell has been experiencing calf tightness, though he is expected to play in Sunday's opener, an MLS Cup final rematch against Columbus.
Yet Borchers knows what the Timbers are in for, having already experienced the task of trying to repeat in 2010, when he and his Real Salt Lake teammates were coming off their 2009 MLS Cup victory.
That team fell in the conference semifinals to FC Dallas, and Borchers believes the task is even tougher this season. MLS was a 15-team league back then, compared with 20 now, and the Western Conference is as competitive as it has ever been.
"It's much harder to earn and keep that playoff spot and earn that right to fight for MLS Cup," he said. "I think there's a lot of parity in the West. From top to bottom, with the exception of a couple of teams, you've got eight really strong teams that are looking to compete for that first-place playoff spot in the West. I think that makes it very difficult when it comes down to playing each team three times in a season. It feels like teams are more organized, and attacking-wise there's been a lot more money spent on attackers. I think you can kind of see that it's much more difficult to defend some of these teams."
For now, Borchers and his teammates have some immediate goals in mind. It's easy to forget that a year ago, Portland started the season by winning just two of its first nine games. Playing with more consistency will increase the Timbers' odds of repeating as MLS Cup champions. Porter is certainly looking to push his club to even greater heights.
"I've played for Caleb Porter for a year," Borchers said. "I know there isn't a single day off that he takes as a coach. He's always looking for ways to improve the team and for ways to win. He definitely doesn't slack off on us, and that's what makes our team good. We're never resting on our laurels at all."
With that kind of approach, Portland may yet find itself back on top of the MLS heap and leave Borchers' beard trying to survive another trimming.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.