The MLS is Back Tournament began 33 days ago, with a field of 26 teams that would soon contract to 24 as FC Dallas and Nashville SC were withdrawn amid a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests. As the competition got off the ground, the focus was not so much on the results on the pitch, but rather the results of the coronavirus tests that were being administered to everyone inside the bubble every 48 hours.
Since then, though, that’s changed.
As the group stage progressed, the negative tests piled up and the players’ rust was shaken off, and focus returned to what was unfolding on the pitches of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. And what emerged was a competition full of late drama and upsets, best exemplified by Orlando City SC‘s presence in Tuesday’s final (8 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN) against the Portland Timbers.
In five full seasons of existence, Orlando has never reached the postseason. As MLS is Back entered the quarterfinal stage, none of the eight remaining clubs had longer odds than the Lions at +1200. And yet, they’ve become one of the most exciting sides in this most unpredictable tournament, steadily preparing for a most unlikely cup final in in their backyard.
And even though this competition has largely belonged to the underdogs — with LAFC notably knocked out early — Portland finds itself in its third cup final in the past six seasons: 2015 MLS Cup winner, 2018 MLS Cup runner-up and now MLS is Back finalist. Will the Timbers’ experience in big moments prepare them for the unpredictability of Orlando in this tournament?
The conventional wisdom was that it would take some time for new manager Oscar Pareja to weave his magic on an Orlando team known more for ineptitude than any hint of success. So much for that line of thinking. The Lions are now in the final, and Pareja not only has Orlando winning, but winning well.
There is constant talk of the Lions being the protagonist, and that is backed up in the way outside-backs Ruan and Joao Moutinho get forward. Mauricio Pereyra has performed just as you would expect from an attacking maestro. Nani looks rejuvenated and Chris Mueller has stepped up his game on the wing. That latter duo has struck for three goals each.
It’s also been mentioned that Pareja has done all this with largely the same group that finished 11th of 12 teams in the Eastern Conference last year. But closer inspection reveals some adept surgery. On-loan defender Antonio Carlos has partnered with holdover Robin Jansson in the center of defense while in goal Pedro Gallese has been unorthodox but effective. That kind of stabilization can have a domino effect on the attack that allows for more risk. So it has proved for the Lions.
Giovanni Savarese just finds ways to win. It’s what he did in the Timbers’ run to an MLS Cup runners-up finish in 2018, it’s what he’s done throughout this tournament in Orlando, winning only a single match by more than one goal, and it’s what he’s done throughout this season, as Portland is the only team in Major League Soccer with five victories in 2020.
Dating back to the second week of the season, the Timbers have gone seven matches unbeaten (5-0-2 in that span), the longest such streak since they earned points in 15 straight games from April to August of their run to the MLS Cup final in 2018.
With the Timbers grinding out results in Orlando, the impact of two players in particular have grabbed the headlines: Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse. The latter has scored four times in six MLS is Back matches, with the former directly contributing to eight of the Timbers’ 12 goals in the tournament — tied for second most behind LAFC‘s Diego Rossi.
The X factors on either side
For all the praise Nani, Pereyra and Mueller have received, someone has to do the grunt work behind them, and Uri Rosell and Jhegson Mendez have done just that. Not only have they been distributing the ball at a steady clip of around 88%, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but they’ve been putting in the work defensively, with Rosell making 39 recoveries, tied for the team high with Moutinho. In terms of pure physical battles, both players have won at most 40% of their duels during the tournament, so that will be something to keep an eye on.
If Orlando is to claim a trophy for the first time in its history, Rosell and Mendez must continue to set the table for the team’s attacking players.
On the Portland side, it’s hard to ignore Blanco, who may be in a head-to-head battle with Nani for the MLS is Back MVP award. No one in MLS in 2020 has more assists or more expected assists, he has the second-most touches in the attacking third and he’s in the top 10 in chances created. Throughout this tournament, he’s averaged 1.35 goals and assists per 90 minutes, making him downright unplayable — even Nani has only produced 1.0 goals and assists per 90. Blanco will need help, though, because unless Diego Valeri (who’s played 324 of 540 minutes in Orlando) can occupy the Lions’ attention, they’ll be all too quick to key in on Blanco’s creativity.
How the match will be won
Orlando’s approach of getting its outside-backs forward basically amounts to a glorified game of chicken. Is the risk of pushing the likes of Ruan and Moutinho into the attacking half worth the possibility of getting nailed on a counterattack? So far it has been, but that’s not to say that when the Lions do this there’s absolutely no cover. It’s always possible for a holding midfielder like Mendez or a center-back like Carlos to slide over and protect that part of the field. But when you have a game-breaker like Portland’s Blanco on the field, a bit more goes into the calculus of sending an outside-back forward than it might otherwise.
Portland’s offseason retooling, and the emergence of Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson, means the Timbers can beat you in more ways than they did in 2019, but reverting to their counterattacking ways might be the way to get at Orlando. It’s a classic gambit: Use the Lions’ eagerness to carry the play against them. A big question is whether Diego Valeri starts or comes off the bench. Both he and Blanco are deadly in the open field, and it all depends on how much risk Portland manager Gio Savarese is willing to take. If Valeri sits, Blanco can be moved centrally and ease his defensive responsibilities, but it makes the Timbers’ attack less dangerous.
Meanwhile, can Portland defend well enough to make such an approach work? Right-back Chris Duvall has an immense challenge facing him in Nani, as does Jorge Villafana going up against Mueller, who has upped his game considerably in this tournament. Add in Ruan and Moutinho getting forward, and it amounts to a ton of work for Williamson and Diego Chara, who will also have to contend with Pereyra. Chara has been at his do-everything best in the tournament, and along with Williamson will need to be at his best for Portland to prevail.
Orlando’s eagerness to win its first silverware in MLS could go one of two ways: rallying the underdogs to a famous victory on the fields used by the club in its lower league days, or presenting the likes of Blanco and Valeri with the space they so excel at exploiting, with the reborn Ebobisse there to benefit from their service.
Our pick: Portland