Sandy • Never one to tip his hand, coach Jason Kreis acknowledged that “there’s a chance” that defender Nat Borchers will play for the first time this season when Real Salt Lake meets Chivas USA at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
A strong chance?
“There’s a chance,” Kreis repeated.
Either way, the fact that Borchers is getting close to returning from offseason knee surgery is crucial for RSL as it seeks to equal its hot start of last season and improve on its disappointing finish.
The Goats might not be the most dangerous scoring threat in Major League Soccer — not a single goal yet, in two games — but the pairing of Borchers and former league defender of the year Jamison Olave in central defense has proven to be one of the biggest keys to RSL’s recent success.
In the past three seasons, RSL was 36-18-24 in regular-season games when Borchers and Olave both start, allowing an average of just 0.90 goals per game.
Otherwise, the team was 7-10-5 with a 1.23 goals-against average — not including the season-ending playoff loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy, when Borchers was out and Olave was playing hurt.
Of course, some of that also can be attributed to injuries to other players, such as midfielder Javier Morales last season.
But even so, and for as well as third-year defender Chris Schuler has played in place of Borchers during back-to-back victories to start this season, it’s clear that the so-called “Bor-Lave” tandem in the back takes the RSL defense to another level.
“They fit each other’s pieces of the puzzle so well,” explained Brian Dunseth, the former RSL defender who’s now one of the team’s broadcasters. “I feel like they really cover each other, and complement each other so well with their strengths and weaknesses.”
And team officials know they’re going to need to play at the highest level later in the season.
That’s why Kreis has been so willing to allow Borchers and others plenty of time to recover fully from their offseason injuries and surgeries, rather than rush them back onto the field. The coach knows — from painful experience last year — that it’s far more important to have his best players healthy for the playoffs than for the first few games of a long season in April.
It hasn’t hurt, either, that younger players such as Schuler and midfielders Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez have stepped up well in place of the recovering veterans. The team still has a chance to equal last season’s franchise-record 4-0-0 start.
“It’s really, really important to have a deep team,” Kreis said.
For his part, Borchers said he expects at least to be on the 18-man game-day lineup, and there is good reason to think he might not start yet.
For one, the Goats are nobody’s juggernaut — they’re the only team in the MLS Western Conference without a point — they haven’t scored a goal this season and probably have a rookie starting in place of injured world-class striker Juan Pablo Angel.
Plus, RSL is playing at home with a five-game unbeaten streak in the series, and plays next week on artificial turf in Portland, where it probably would prefer to hold out Olave to avoid aggravating a touchy knee. If Kreis envisions using Borchers instead of Olave alongside Schuler in that game, he might keep Borchers on the bench against Chivas.
Regardless, the players said they’re focused on the Goats, no matter who’s in the lineup.
“We have a great opportunity here to start the season 3-0, and try to hopefully be at the top of the table still,” midfielder Ned Grabavoy said.
“So that’s a challenge in itself, and we should be up for it.”
Chivas USA at Real Salt Lake
P At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff • 7 p.m.
TV • CW30
Radio • 700 AM, 102.3 FM
Records • RSL 2-0-0, Chivas USA 0-2-0
Regular-season series • Chivas leads 9-7-4
Last meeting • RSL 1, Chivas 0 (Aug. 27, 2011)
About RSL • It’s riding a five-game unbeaten streak (4-0-1) against the Goats, and has not allowed them to score in 200 minutes. … It leads the league with five goals. … Forward Fabian Espindola has scored in each of the first two games; nobody on the team has ever scored in the first three. … Midfielder Will Johnson remains out, recovering from sports-hernia surgery. … Goalkeeper Nick Rimando has allowed only one goal in two games.
About Chivas USA • The Goats have yet to score this season, losing 1-0 at home in each of their first two games to rank as the only team in the MLS Western Conference without a point. … Forward Juan Pablo Angel is doubtful to play because of concussion-like symptoms. … Goalkeeper Dan Kennedy was the team MVP last season. … Salt Lake City’s Justin Braun is no longer on the team.