KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Rich Balchan waited an agonizingly long time for a moment like Saturday night.
Marching out of the Sporting Park tunnel and continuing toward the center circle with Real Salt Lake’s starters instead of turning toward the bench — or simply watching from the stands or on his couch — was a moment 30 months in the making.
“It means a lot to finally get back on the field like that. I’ve been working so hard to overcome a lot of injuries, four surgeries and being out since 2011,” said Balchan. “It was definitely very exciting, a lot of nerves, a lot of anxiousness before the game at the hotel. So I was just trying to calm the nerves and stay focused. I thought I did a good job managing everything.”
Since a strong rookie season with the Columbus Crew in 2011, which included 19 appearances and a playoff start for the 11th overall pick, Balchan has spent most of the past 2 1/2 years in the operating room or training room rather than the soccer pitch.
Balchan missed the entire 2012 season with Columbus after requiring two surgeries to repair a sports hernia injury.
In his first season with Real Salt Lake a year later, snakebit Balchan dislocated his left shoulder twice in the same MLS Reserve League game against Los Angeles in late April. The injury required surgery — the second of his career on his left shoulder — and ultimately kept him off the training field for most of the 2013 season.
This weekend, Balchan finally caught a break.
When injuries to Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert opened up spots in Real Salt Lake’s starting lineup for the much-hyped MLS Cup rematch at Kansas City, a healthy Balchan was finally able to take advantage.
He got the nod at right back in place of Beltran, going the full 90 minutes in an impressive performance as visiting RSL notched the shutout.
“I thought I showed pretty well. I just worked hard. Most importantly, we got the shutout in the back line,” said Balchan. “There’s things I definitely want to improve on and that will continue to improve as the season goes on.”
That’s assuming Balchan remains healthy, but coach Jeff Cassar believes the 25-year-old Michigan native did everything necessary last offseason to prepare himself to make contributions in 2014.
“Rich has been training fantastic all year long. He really came in this year fit, taking care of his body. He’s confident, and today was the perfect time to get him into a game. He deserves it,” said Cassar.
While Saturday was Balchan’s first start in 30 months, his first appearance since the 2011 playoffs actually occurred last week when Wingert injured his groin early in the second half against Toronto FC. Balchan replaced him for the final 32 minutes, a substitute role that prepared him for much larger contributions a week later.
Kansas City is a dangerous attacking team, particularly in the midfield with guys like Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber roaming around. Balchan ended up marking Zusi quite a bit on the night, a challenge he looked forward to and thrived in.
“I think one-on-one defending is the best part of my game, so I embrace the opportunity to show that I have talent against one of the best players in the league,” said Zusi.
With Kansas City forcing the issue all game, Balchan occasionally got beat, but like regulars Wingert and Beltran in front of him — who usually benefit from starting goalkeeper Nick Rimando making big saves — Balchan also benefitted from terrific goalkeeping as backup Jeff Attinella came up with some huge saves all game.