As part of his recurring series of interviews on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley talks to veteran Real Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers about the upcoming CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Borchers, 32, was a part of the RSL team that advanced all the way to the finals of the CCL back in 2011, before losing by a 3-2 aggregate score to Monterrey.
Salt Lake are the only MLS team to reach a final since the tournament took on its current format in 2008-09. The last MLS team to win a CONCACAF title was the LA Galaxy, who won what was then known as the CONCACAF Champions' Cup in 2000. The last eight titles have been won by Mexican teams.
BRADLEY: On Tuesday night, the CONCACAF Champions League starts up again, with San Jose hosting Toluca (10 pm ET, Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes). Wednesday night, it's Sporting Kansas City hosting Cruz Azul and the LA Galaxy hosting Tijuana. Put it into perspective: As a guy who played on a team that almost won it all in 2011, how important is the CCL to MLS players?
BORCHERS: It's a great proving ground for the players and the teams in our league, to play against the best teams in the region. You only get to compete against these guys if you're playing for the national team, so to do it at the club level is really special.
BRADLEY: What are some of the challenges that MLS teams face? For example, this week, the MLS teams, who have barely started their seasons, are playing Mexican teams that are much further along. How hard is that?
BORCHERS: It's really difficult. There's just no other way to put it.
BRADLEY: How important was Real Salt Lake's run to the Champions League final, and has losing in the final stayed with you the last few years?
BORCHERS: It was a fantastic experience all around. We put a lot of emphasis on trying to win that title, so making it to the final was really special. Even though we lost, we were really proud of what we put into it. We were just one goal away from winning it.
BRADLEY: When Jason Kreis was managing, he made it known that it was a high priority. Do you think other teams around the league feel the same way?
BORCHERS: It seemed like we were the only ones who put a high priority on winning Champions League when we had our run. But now it seems like more teams are excited about being in the tournament and want to perform well. I really think a big part of us putting so much emphasis on Champions League came from our foreign players. The guys from Central and South America really wanted to prove themselves.
BRADLEY: So it came from within the team, not just from Kreis?
BORCHERS: Absolutely, and you could really see it, like I said, from our foreign players. They treated it like a World Cup. They were 100 percent committed for those games and they all did such a great job, helping us advance.
BRADLEY: The tournament so often, from an MLS perspective, seems almost haphazard. These games are jammed in and there's so little control over the schedule. Do the players just look at the big picture, that it's their responsibility to grind through these years so maybe the Champions League evolves into something even bigger?
BORCHERS: I think it can be a lot bigger than it is today. But even now, it's special to be able to represent the league against foreign teams, on foreign soil. Going into those places and trying to get results makes us better. And it's fun because it's different. When you just play in the league, you're seeing the same faces, the same systems, the same referees. But when you go to Panama, for example, it's just so different. The whole vibe is different from the stadiums to the fans. It's an experience I highly recommend.
BRADLEY: What was the toughest place you played?
BORCHERS: The game we played away at Saprissa, in the Purple Monster [in Costa Rica], was just an amazing experience. The atmosphere and how close the fans were to the field, and how excited they were to be at the game. I remember our bus getting pelted with beer cans and stuff and fans yelling at us, it's just a game I'll never forget.
BRADLEY: How do you feel about San Jose, Kansas City and LA's chances? This week they're home, but they're going up against really formidable opposition.
BORCHERS: I like their chances of advancing. But I also think you'd prefer to avoid the Mexican teams, if you had a choice. Their depth makes them the most difficult opponents in the Champions League. They all seem to have 20-year-old kids who can really play. It's like they pull guys out of nowhere.
BRADLEY: Do you think the MLS teams will advance?
BORCHERS: I think our three teams will represent the league well. And I think everyone in MLS is looking forward to seeing one of our teams raise the trophy. It's time.