On Tuesday, August 11th, the MLS is Back tournament culminates with one final match. The Portland Timbers take on tournament “host” Orlando City SC with $1.1 million and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League on the line. America’s first sports league to return in a bubble hosted a very successful tournament, proving doubters wrong and setting the standard for how to run a sports league in a contained environment during these difficult times. First, let’s take a look back on how we got here.
The tournament was announced with all 26 teams set to play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside of Orlando, pending negative tests for COVID-19. However, several players on FC Dallas tested positive for the virus and their tournament was over without playing a single game. A few days later, Nashville SC, who debuted in 2020, also flexed their strong pull-out game after their own issues with Coronavirus. With both Dallas and Nashville exiting, Group A was left with 5 teams and Group B with 3, so the Chicago Fire moved from Group A to B to round things out.
Speaking of groups, the teams were organized into 6 of them, World Cup style, originally with 5 groups of 4 and one group of 6. Each team was to play 3 group games. Groups A, C, and E were planned to have teams from the East and B, D, and F with teams out West. Once the Fire moved over to Group B, the arrangement was perfectly balanced (as all things should be) with 4 teams per group. The top 2 teams in each group advanced to the knockout stage, along with the 4 best 3rd place teams. The 3 group stage games each team played also count towards regular-season point totals.
The group stage was filled with surprises that left fans of a few big clubs stunned, whereas other clubs enjoyed rare successes. Pre-tournament favorites, LAFC, who had the most regular-season points in 2019, finished 2nd in Group F with just 5 points (For those unfamiliar with soccer, a win is 3 points, a tie 1, and a loss 0). They were missing 2019 MLS MVP Carlos Vela (Paternity leave/opt out) but were still considered by many as the best-attacking team in the league. 2019 MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders, another favorite heading into the restart, barely finished 2nd in Group B with a weak 4 points. Yet another favorite, 2018 MLS Cup Champion Atlanta United, flamed out of the tournament, partly due to the absence of 2018 MVP Josef Martinez (ACL tear). failing to score a single goal as they flamed out, finishing 4th in Group E with 0 points.
A few Cinderella teams also emerged in group play. FC Cincinnati, who won just 6 of 34 games in their debut season in 2019, finished 2nd in Group E with 6 points. Orlando City SC, nicknamed the Lions, and comparable to the NFL’s Detroit Lions, are yet to make the MLS Cup Playoffs (The end of season competition separate from the MLS is Back Tourney) in their 5 years in the league. Despite their historic misery, they won Group A with 7 points, thanks to the play of 23-year-old Chris Mueller. Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, and Sporting KC, who all missed last year’s MLS Cup playoffs, each won their groups, with 9, 7, and 6 points, respectively.
After the group stage, the win or go home knockout stage ensued. With the exception of two 1-0 results, the round of 16 was packed with lots of action, including 3 penalty shootouts. LAFC took on Seattle Sounders in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference Final, but Diego Rossi carried the black and golf to a victory, as they routed Seattle, 4-1. NYCFC defeated Toronto FC 3-1, another revenge match from last season’s playoffs. San Jose Earthquakes feasted on Real Salt Lake with 5 goals to RSL’s two, who scored as many goals as they had red cards.
As in the round of 16, there was no shortage of action in the quarterfinals. The 6 total games all had at least one goal scored by each team, and the LAFC-Orlando quarterfinal featured an eventful penalty shootout. After missing a PK earlier in the game, Nani, formerly of Manchester United, converted the winning pen in the shootout to lift Orlando into the semis. The other quarterfinals were all blowouts, two by the score of 3-1, with the other being 4-1. Portland Timbers, Philadelphia Union, and Minnesota United all advanced to the semis after their big wins.
After 2-1 and 3-1 wins for the Timbers and Orlando City, respectively, two teams with much different history meet in the first-ever MLS is Back tourney final. The Timbers have been playing very consistently, with quality play up top from Jeremy Ebobisse to the tune of 4 goals. Franchise icons Diego Valeri and Diego Chara have held down the midfield, along with Sebastian Blanco, who is arguably Portland’s best player. The Timbers were considered one of the better teams entering the tourney, but few envisioned them in the final.
Even fewer MLS pundits predicted the Lions of Orlando City to be in the semis, let alone the final. They enter the match with a wave of momentum, having fared well under the familiar humid summer conditions of central Florida. Chris Mueller cooled off a little after his strong showing in group play, but Orlando stayed hot as a team. Nani’s experience and leadership have helped guide Orlando through the unfamiliar win or die games, but their defense deserves a lot of credit too. They have yet to concede more than one goal in a game, and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese has risen to the occasion multiple times.
Ultimately, this game will be a tricky one to predict. Expect both teams to open the game firing, as scoring the first goal is a huge predictor of success in games like this. The Timbers as a team have more experience in final games, having won the MLS Cup in 2015 and making the cup final in 2018, but Orlando City is in a familiar setting, as they technically have home-field advantage. My prediction is a Timbers win, by the score of 2-1. Their experience and superior attack will prevail, but Orlando City will go down swinging, putting up a valiant effort after showing their new form to the league over the past month.
In addition, a total of 4 individual player awards are presented for the tournament. Unless Jeremy Ebobisse scores 3 goals in the final on Tuesday, LAFC’s Diego Rossi will take home the Golden Boot, as the top goalscorer, as he netted 7 goals in just 5 games. After leading Orlando on a miraculous run, Nani is the current front runner for Player of the Tournament, with 3 goals and 3 assists in the tourney. The Golden Glove will undoubtedly go to the Jamaican Andre Blake, who has come up big for the Union. Blake has the most saves at the tournament and has let in just 5 goals in 6 games. Last is the Young Player of the Tournament award, the most competitive award of the 4. My pick is Toronto FC’s Ayo Akinola, a 20-year-old American-Canadian dual national. Ayo landed in Orlando with a splash, scoring 5 goals in 2 consecutive games, second to Rossi among all players. Others up for the award include Rossi and Philadelphia’s Brenden Aaronson.