Upon arrival at Providence Park before the Timbers' marquee meeting with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday afternoon, Nat Borchers delivered a six-pack of Widmer to a Timbers fan celebrating her 21st birthday at the stadium.
It was a gesture typical of one of the most gracious, big-hearted athletes this city has ever seen. Last year, it was Borchers who embraced the story of Lynda Rose — a Timbers fan dying of cancer, whose last wish was to see her club lift MLS Cup. Thanks in large part to the center back, that wish was fulfilled.
Nat Borchers, over his entire career, has made a mockery of the thesis that there are no true role models in sports. On the field, he's played his position just about as well as it can be played. Competitive, consistent, and clean.
In 57 MLS games with the Timbers, Borchers had only been booked one time. He always marked the opposing team's most dangerous attacker on set pieces, usually holding his own despite giving up a handful of inches and more than a handful of pounds.
There was also this: In his time with the Timbers, and more broadly throughout his MLS career, Nat Borchers had never gotten hurt.
Never. And in a season in which almost every Timbers player who matters — Kwarasey, Nagbe, Valeri, Ridgewell, and on and on — has missed time through injury, Borchers' durability and dependability has stood out.
Since his rookie season thirteen years ago, Borchers has never missed more than eight starts. Only once has he ever missed more than five starts. Throughout more than 350 career MLS games, and more than 400 all told, Borchers — the team's leader in minutes in 2016 — has been every bit the ironman that you'd expect he'd be.
But on Saturday, just minutes before halftime, the heartbeat of the Timbers' championship dropped to the ground clutching his ankle. It was a non-contact injury, just feet from where Mikael Silvestre's career ended in 2013, and there was never any doubt that it was serious.
Borchers tried to get back to his feet several times, because of course he did, but he couldn't walk. He'd be stretched off, face in his hands, wondering, certainly, if he'd just played his last professional soccer game.
The Portland Timbers lost to LA 2-1 on Saturday. The defeat marked the end of Portland's nine-game unbeaten run. When it was over, the team's resounding triumph over the Seattle Sounders just six days previously felt like a distant dream.
We'll wait for a diagnosis on Borchers. The nature of the injury — and the fact that his ankle was so swollen in the immediate aftermath that trainers couldn't get a clear look — suggests an Achilles tendon tear.
At 35, facing a potentially grueling road back to health, and with his place in the team about to be under threat anyway from incoming former Newcastle center back Steven Taylor, Borchers might now have to face the longest of odds to continue his Timbers career.
This would be a hell of a cruel ending to a hell of a career. Still — Real Salt Lake made the mistake of counting Borchers out once, and it won Portland MLS Cup. For now, both the player and his team will have to wait and hope for anything but the worst.
Losing Borchers, in an immediate competitive sense, would be a further blow to a team who's chances of success this season are predicated entirely on the health of its first-choice starting eleven. Against the Galaxy, the Timbers were without Liam Ridgewell — and that absence alone likely decided the game.
With SportsCenter on hand for its first broadcast live from the site of an MLS game, the Timbers weren't ready when the red light came on. The defense, reshuffled, outgunned, and, without Ridgewell's leadership, entirely disorganized, made a shambolic start.
LA took the lead after just six minutes, with Robbie Keane settling in-between Taylor, Borchers, and Alvas Powell and turning a Giovani dos Santos cross into the net for his twenty-fourth goal in his last twenty four MLS games.
It was two just five minutes later. LA's diminutive Ghanian winger Emanuel Boateng skinned Alvas Powell and watched as his cross took an unlucky deflection off of Borchers and was turned in by Gyasi Zardes.
With a two-goal cushion, the Galaxy — who hadn't conceded a goal in their last three games and have this year racked up the best points-per-game mark in the league despite being outshot in fourteen straight matches — were always likely to hold on.
Portland got into the fight after going 2-0 down, but it was tough-sledding all the way. Fanendo Adi battled gamely against Jelle Van Damme, and Darlington Nagbe played his best game since the Copa America break, but Los Angeles played with the kind of toughness that the Timbers have only accessed in spades this year.
Nigel de Jong, who almost ended Nagbe's career in Los Angeles in April, was a major part of the Galaxy effort. Booed vociferously throughout by the Timbers Army, the Dutchman would have the last laugh — cracking afterwards that he "felt very welcomed" on his first trip to Portland.
Portland's only breakthrough came just a minute before Borchers collapsed, when Nagbe set up Valentin for a stinging shot that beat South Eugene native LA goalkeeper Brian Rowe. The goal was Valentin's first in MLS for more than four years, and a just reward for plenty of good work this season.
The Timbers would have a catalogue of second half forays forward, but just a few chances to show for them. The Galaxy, though under pressure, never looked particularly frazzled in closing out one of their biggest wins of the season.
LA is the class of the league. When the Timbers beat them 5-2 again, they'll know they can win MLS Cup. Until then, especially if Dallas sells Fabian Castillo, it'll be Bruce Arena's to lose.
The game, pitting MLS' two best coaches and arguably its two premier organizations, didn't disappoint as a spectacle. That was in no small part due to the expert refereeing of Alan Kelly, MLS' best Irish import after the ever-animated Keane, who whistled just fourteen fouls and didn't give out a single card.
But with the specter of Borchers' injury looming over proceedings, the match from Portland's perspective more resembled an exercise in suffering. Although the Timbers have had their moments in 2016 — and still can beat any team in the league at their best — it's been a fairly painful year.
The breakup of any championship team always hurts, but this season has been played a consistent cloud of turbulence. Borchers, through all of that, and despite having to play major minutes next to Jermaine Taylor, was a rock — ever the joyful competitor, ever the eager teammate, and, importantly, ever-present.
It goes without saying, but the Timbers may have lost a lot more than a game on Saturday. This season now hangs ever more precariously in the balance.