PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers defender Nat Borchers’ path to 300 career Major League Soccer games began quietly.
After graduating from the University of Denver, where he was a three-time member of the all-conference team and the 2002 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year, Borchers entered the 2003 MLS SuperDraft ready to begin his professional soccer career.
Borchers, however, could only sit and watch as fifty-eight other young players had their names called out at the Kansas City Convention Center. In the sixth and final round of the draft, as Borchers's hopes faded by the minute, two teams even chose to pass on their picks rather than select another college graduate.
Steadfast in his self-belief, Borchers pressed on with his dream of becoming a professional, eventually signing a rookie contract with the Colorado Rapids.
"I came into my rookie season with a big chip on my shoulder and I think I had a lot to prove to the coaching staff, to the other teams, that I was good enough to be a drafted player," said Borchers.
After starting and playing the full 90 in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Toronto FC, Borchers became only the 29th player in MLS history to hit 300 career games.
Hitting that mark, however, wasn’t a given as his MLS career got off to an inauspicious start.
In his debut match against the Chicago Fire in 2003, a 4-0 loss, Borchers gave up a foul that led to a Fire penalty kick.
Like so many other MLS rookies in that era, Borchers's story could have ended there had it not been for a season-ending injury suffered by a Rapids teammate in a road match against the LA Galaxy. Borchers, who was in the 18-man roster that day as an available sub, was slotted into in central defense in the middle of the game.
"I was definitely nervous," Borchers remembered. "There was a lot on the line."
While the Rapids lost that match, the team had found itself a starting defender in the tall, commanding Borchers, who went on to become the 2003 Rapids Defensive Player of the Year and who played in 81 more league games for the Colorado club between 2003 and 2005.
"It was a big adjustment for sure," Borchers said of his first season as a pro. "Just going from being a college player and the speed of play at that level to the professional level is a big jump. So it was a huge learning curve."
It's fitting that Borchers's first big moment came in that LA Galaxy game as it was the first ever played at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. Since then, the league has doubled in size and facilities like the StubHub Center have proliferated across MLS.
For Borchers, who is now playing in his eleventh season in MLS, the league he entered as a rookie and the league he plays in now are remarkably different.
"It just seems as though every year there's something new and exciting in this league," he said. "We're getting younger, better players into the league. The youth development has been tremendous. You can see that the facilities are getting better. It's just night and day from when I started."
How Borchers has managed to remain such a defensive mainstay in that time period comes down to qualities that aren't easily quantifiable.
"I was never a fast player," Borchers explained. "I never had any great athletic ability. But I always loved to defend and I was always able to read the game well and was able to communicate. Those were the facets of my game that I've always known were good and I've always used those to the best of my ability."
Some of those qualities he honed while playing at Colorado alongside veteran MLS defender and current Toronto FC assistant coach Robin Fraser.
Borchers drew on that connection with Fraser when he came back to MLS in 2008 after a brief detour with Norwegian Tippeligaen club Odd Greenland (now Odds BK). Fraser was then an assistant with Real Salt Lake.
"I'd had a disappointing two years in Norway; our team got relegated my second year,” he said. “Towards the end of my time there I was struggling to be a starter and I really didn't enjoy my personal life off the field. To come back to Salt Lake, which is just over the other side of the mountains from Colorado was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
It was in Salt Lake that Borchers solidified his reputation as a positionally adept defender and vocal leader. It was also where he experienced some of the greatest highs of his career, playing in over 200 games for the club, including winning an MLS Cup in 2009.
After thirteen years as a professional and now playing with the Portland Timbers, Borchers continues to come back to the game week-after-week, excited by the challenge of the match ahead and inspired by his own passion for the sport. In 2015, Borchers has played every minute of every game for the Timbers through 12 games and has scored two goals on the campaign.
"It's the best job in the world, no doubt about it," he said. "Being a professional soccer player is a privilege and is just something that I really enjoy doing. Every season comes with different challenges and I'd like to continue to get better, to learn, and see what I can do to help this team get better."