The Portland Timbers don't have far to go if they want to celebrate their latest trophy in traditional American sports style.
The Timbers claimed the MLS Is Back title on Disney World's sports complex ground Tuesday night, edging Orlando City 2-1 to cap MLS's return-to-play tournament. The win gives the Portland Timbers a unique trophy for their case at Providence Park, but more importantly, it seals a place in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. The victory also comes with $300,000 of the league's $1.1 million prize money pool, while Orlando City takes home $150,000 for reaching the final.
Portland went ahead in the 27th minute, when center back Larrys Mabiala bounced home a header off a pinpoint Diego Valeri free kick. Orlando City equalized in the 39th minute, when Nani crossed for Mauricio Pereyra, who bundled it home from close range.
Dario Zuparic's first goal for the Timbers wound up being the winner, though, with the center back being in the right place to redirect home a ball off another set piece in the 66th minute.
Here are three thoughts on the conclusion of the tournament and another title, of sorts, for the Timbers:
Set pieces set Timbers apart
Two set pieces. Two goals scored by center backs. Sometimes, it's that simple.
For all of Portland's attacking components, it was its central defensive duo that did the lifting in the final third. They had to, because Orlando otherwise controlled about two-thirds of the possession and neutralized the Timbers when they did manage to break forward.
It'll be awfully discouraging for Orlando City to swallow the defeat considering the manner in which it conceded. The opener came off a first-class ball from Valeri, whose free kick some 40-plus yards from goal bent perfectly to Mabiala. The defender just maintained his run, beat Joao Moutinho to the spot, outmuscled his mark and beat the otherwise stellar Pedro Gallese with his bouncing header.
The second was even more unforgivable, with Eryk Williamson given all sorts of time to settle a corner kick and fire into the danger zone, where Jeremy Ebobisse's deflection fell into Zuparic's path right in front of the goal.
Portland didn't overwhelm Orlando in any way, but it did what it's done all tournament: defend solidly, take away the opposition's strengths for the majority of the match and survive. Despite everything, Orlando could've tied it late, but substitute Kyle Smith fired wildly when given a clear look to volley on goal in the dying minutes.
The Timbers won four 2-1 matches in Orlando, arguably should've been taken to penalty kicks by Philadelphia in the semifinals and escaped FC Cincinnati in PKs in the round of 16. A team as tournament tested and veteran-laden as the Timbers—the 2015 MLS Cup winners and 2018 MLS Cup runners-up—found a way, though, and they're the ones taking all the momentum into the resumption of the season.
Orlando City becomes respectable
In its five years in MLS, Orlando City has not fared well on the field. Sure, it debuted with Kaká, and it built a fine, soccer-specific home venue. It's also had five head coaches (including Bobby Murphy's two brief interim stints) in that time and missed the playoffs every season of its existence. The way MLS incentivizes teams that don't succeed in an effort to maintain parity, being consistently bad takes some effort.
This tournament was always going to mean different things to different teams. For a club like Orlando, the motivation to leave a mark—and prove to itself that success is, in fact, obtainable—was clear. Topping its group and reaching the final cements a job well done. There's now a foundation for positivity for the Lions. Nani looks rejuvenated and like a clear leader. Pereyra appears to have the makings of a midfield disruptor. Oscar Pareja's methods now have proof of practice, both at FC Dallas and Orlando City.
Ultimately, it's about what happens next. Orlando resumes MLS play with, in the regular-season standings that incorporated the group-stage results and the first two games before play was suspended, a modest eight points from five matches. It has 18 games left in the abbreviated campaign to cement a playoff place and prove that what happened in the bubble doesn't stay in the bubble.
The bubble worked—now don't put that work to waste
Let's give credit where it's due. Entering the competition, this had the appearance of a train wreck happening in slow motion. First, there was the additional labor strife caused by the league and its players needing to come to an agreement to return to play. Then, FC Dallas and Nashville SC were both forced to withdraw due to a rash of positive tests. D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City both had to combat either positive or false-positive tests. Some players expressed trepidation and genuine worry. It looked, from the outside, like a matter of not if but when things would go belly up.
Yet the bubble held strong, the protocols worked and the individuals inside of it remained responsible. There was not a single positive test reported by the league since July 10, and after the initial fire drill that resulted in a 26-team competition becoming a 24-team one, two groups being altered and some early matches being rescheduled, everything held up and all 51 matches were played. The games were, considering the circumstances and fan-less setting, largely entertaining. The TV ratings were probably not what the league was hoping for, but the product churned out by the league's broadcast partners was—again, all things considered—tremendous. Everyone who had a hand in pulling this off—and the same goes for those who pulled off the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah—deserves to be commended.
Now comes the next part: ensuring all of that goodwill is not undone instantly. Clubs will be resuming play in home markets as soon as Wednesday, when the two outliers, Dallas and Nashville, begin making up the regular-season games (i.e. group-stage games in Orlando) they missed against one another. Up to 5,110 fans are being allowed to attend in Frisco, Texas. On the surface, no matter the protocols in place for all involved, it all seems irresponsible, and opens up the honor system code that the players and league personnel abided by in Orlando to potentially thousands of unpredictable fans. Perhaps MLS deserves the benefit of the doubt after the month it just had, and perhaps the fans willing to attend do too, but given what we do and still don't know about this virus it sure seems like the safest thing to do would be to limit risk exposure and eliminate any potential variables.
The vast majority of teams are not allowing fans into their stadiums for the next phase of the season, and it's still yet to be announced what will happen to the Canadian teams, who can't host U.S.-based competition right now per government mandate. Time—and actions—will tell whether the following phase is able to remain on schedule and keep MLS's bizarre 25th season on track as this hellscape of a year continues.