The Portland Timbers are headed back to another MLS final of sorts, while the Philadelphia Union are left licking their wounds after another close call that ultimately and painfully came up short.
Jeremy Ebobisse and Sebastian Blanco scored on headers off corner kicks in each half, sandwiching a missed penalty kick by Philadelphia's Sergio Santos and leading the Timbers to a 2-1 win over the Union and a place in the MLS is Back tournament final. The end result Wednesday night didn't come easy. Andrew Wooten's 85th-minute goal off a rebound from a saved free kick gave the Union a lifeline, and a tight offside call ruled out a would-be equalizer a minute later to nullify a furious rally. Nevertheless, the Timbers have grown accustomed to success in MLS knockout competition, taking part in two of the last five MLS Cups, winning it all in 2015 and reaching the final of this tournament.
The Union's knockout success is limited to three defeats in the last six U.S. Open Cup finals, and while they were clearly a deserving semifinalist based on their body of work in Orlando, their MLS Is Back bubble has popped a step short of the final.
Portland will play the winner of Thursday night's Orlando City vs. Minnesota United semifinal in the Aug. 11 title bout, where the winner will clinch a place in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. After that, it's a return to MLS's regular season in clubs' home markets, with MLS commissioner Don Garber telling FOX Sports at halftime that an announcement regarding the resumption of the season is in the offing.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
Sebastian Blanco has tournament MVP in his sights
MLS Is Back has been a chance to shine for a number of players, but the one that stands above all the others is Blanco.
It's true he was let off by Santos's missed PK, after he committed a blatant penalty right before halftime by yanking the forward down from behind as he went up to meet a cross. On the attacking end, though, he was everywhere, and if not for the heroics of standout Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, he would've had a more eye-popping stat line.
As it is, he wound up with the game-winning goal, somehow being left unmarked off a corner kick by the far post and able to head home after Dario Zuparic nodded along Diego Valeri's initial service.
Blanco now has three goals and five assists in the competition (one goal and three assists occurred in the group stage and will count toward regular season stats), but his play goes beyond the basic numbers. He's become the spark that makes the Timbers' attack go, and is as much of a reason as anyone that they're in the final.
Are we sure the Union didn't tie it?
After 84 minutes of fruitless soccer, the Union very nearly pulled even. On the night, a series of Philadelphia's best chances sailed over the crossbar: two free kicks and Santos's PK.
When one was finally put on frame, good things happened, with Wooten pouncing after Steve Clark's initial save to bring Philadelphia within 2-1.
A minute later, the miracle looked to be complete. It started through Brenden Aaronson, who embarked on a run into Portland's half and played it wide for Wooten before receiving the return pass. He then turned on his mark and slipped a ball through a tight space and a number of Timbers defenders to Kacper Przybylko, who appeared to score the game-tying goal, only for the assistant referee to raise the flag for offside.
The call was tight and available camera angles were limited due to the confines of the playing venue, but it sure looked like Przybylko was even with the last defender at the time the pass was played. There wasn't obvious-enough evidence to overturn that upon VAR's look, though (nor was there a transparent window into the VAR discussion with referee Allen Chapman—that, evidently, is limited to ESPN broadcasts; Wednesday's match was aired on FS1), and the call stood.
That wound up being that, and the Timbers held on. They could've easily put the game away on multiple occasions. Prior to Blanco's 70th-minute goal, they had two chances to extend the lead, but both Valeri and Jaroslaw Niezgoda fired right into Blake's arms on clear looks. Blake made a significantly more difficult save in the 69th minute, robbing Andy Polo with a full-extension dive.
Even after Blanco's goal appeared to put the game away, Niezgoda spoiled another chance on the counter, opting to be a little too unselfish when he had a clear opportunity to score.
Portland very nearly paid the price for its wastefulness, but it did just enough to go through.
Timbers keep Aaronson quiet–for the most part
Aaronson is the talk of the tournament, with every match broadcast a reminder that, yes, he is receiving overseas interest and, yes, his days with the Union could be numbered. To be fair, it's all merited. The 19-year-old U.S. prospect has been a difference-making midfield spark, with three assists in Orlando, including a gorgeous one in the quarterfinals against Sporting Kansas City.
All of that talk sure looked like it served as motivation fodder for the Timbers, because they put the clamps down on him. He never looked fully comfortable Wednesday until late in the match, and in his first-half hydration break remarks, Portland manager Giovanni Savarese didn't specifically name Aaronson, but he did indicate that keeping the lines close and not allowing the Union to penetrate through the middle was key to Portland's early success. Reading between the lines, that's all Aaronson and the job that Diego Chara & Co. did to prevent him from having an influence.
It wasn't until that final last-gasp stretch that Aaronson made an impact, and it's no surprise that the Union's most dangerous moments—and its close call at pulling even—came off Aaronson-inspired action.
For all the chatter about Aaronson and 21-year-old Philadelphia center back Mark McKenzie, Portland's young U.S. duo wound up having more to say on the field.
Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson, both 23, continued their stellar play, with the former scoring his fourth goal of the competition and the latter looking ever more comfortable in the midfield engine room.
Whenever the U.S. national team returns to action, there are going to be a lot of games across different competitions that figure to stretch the usual limits of the player pool. There's no doubt that Ebobisse and Williamson—in addition to Aaronson and McKenzie—have played their way into greater consideration come 2021, whether it's for a January camp, Olympic qualifying, the Nations League semifinals, the Gold Cup or even World Cup qualifying. All pandemic-pending, of course.