With Real Salt Lake making the surprise move to put two defensive midfielders in the starting lineup, central defenders Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler looked like they were going to be protected. On Sunday, they were anything but.
On a night that started with duo clearing passes across the six and ended with the pair trying to stand up to LA’s counter attack, RSL’s central tandem were constantly tested. They bent and even broke a couple of times, but come full-time, the only score of a 1-0 game wasn’t on them. They couldn’t be expected to stop Sean Franklin’s blast from well outside the penalty area.
It’s no exaggeration to say another central pair would have conceded a couple of goals, leaving RSL with little hope ahead of Thursday’s second leg. But with players like Borchers and Schuler, Jason Kreis could afford to take some chances. That those risks didn’t come back to hurt RSL almost demands one of the team’s central defenders claim Man of the Match honors. Their performances had the greatest impacts on tonight’s result.
Schuler had some memorable moments — most notably, clearing a first half cross in the six-yard box before Landon Donovan could convert — but the pure quantity of Nat Borchers’ contributions wins him our honor. Borchers made 11 successful clearances (six more than his partner), added four interceptions, and recorded game-high three blocked shots – number that quantify the ever-present feel of his performance.
His key contribution, however, is difficult to separate from Schuler’s. As Real Salt Lake opened up late in the second half, seemingly willing to press for an equalizing goal, Borchers and Schuler found themselves isolated against a counterattack that’s been the key factor in claiming the two straight titles. Yet as Landon Donovan bore down on them and Robbie Keane tried to drag the defenders into confusion, RSL’s duo looked more comfortable than any central tandem we’ve seen try their hand against LA’s transition. No, they didn’t win every battle, but they won enough to keep LA from pulling away. They knew exactly what they wanted to do against the Galaxy’s biggest threat.
Man of the Match could go to either guy. If you thought Schuler’s great first half clearance should get some extra credit, he’ll be your guy for this honor. But on this occasion, we’re going with quantity, and as the most-prolific man cleaning up in RSL’s area, Nat Borchers wins PST’s acclaim.