Against all odds, and setting an example for other major US sports leagues as well as soccer leagues worldwide. America’s Major League of Soccer has done it again with the MLS is back tournament.
Probably because the MLS table is almost used to facing challenges, it managed to pull off one of the most memorable events in soccer history, and while at it paved the way for more leagues to follow. Namely, the NBA which is now also holding a competition in the same venue.
And so, the MLS is Back Tournament kicked off at late June in the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. All 26 teams arrived to the in July to the Disney-owned complex, tested for coronavirus and checked into hotels in Disney resorts nearby.
The World-Cup style tournament kicked off with group stages and moved on to a Round of 16 and knockout rounds up the final which was held on Wednesday, August 11.
The rise of the underdogs
Before the MLS is Back Tournament begun, the favourites for winning were teams that came to Orlando on the back of a strong MLS record like LAFC, Atlanta United FC, Sporting Kansas City and reigning champions Seattle Sounders.
However, things changed pretty quickly with key players and even entire teams dropping out of the competition due to COVID-19 restrictions and other personal reasons.
The balance was shaken, and it was time for more Major League Soccer teams to adjust and shine in the sudden return of the 2020 season.
What made the MLS is Back Tournament so exciting was all these unexpected wins from the Group Stage onwards and all the way to the final.
Before the competition began, neither Orlando nor Portland were favorites to even reach the final stages. But when it came to a close, most American soccer fans agreed that the final featured the two strongest teams in the competition.
Portland Timbers and Orlando road to the final
MLS Western Conference side Portland Timbers showed a strong performance from the start of the tournament when beating LAFC, LA Galaxy, and Huston to finish at the top of Group F which was considered a tough draw.
They had a scary moment finishing at a 1-1 tie against FC Cincinnati in the Round of 16, but after winning 4-2 at a penalty shootout the Timbers just kept racing to the top with impressive wins over NYCFC (3-1) and Philadelphia Union (2-1) to get to the final.
Eastern Conference Orlando City SC which was the host of the MLS is Back Tournament also had a very impressive journey to the finals. The Lions had to go through a few tough teams in Group A like NYCFC and Philadelphia Union, and then moved on to a beat Montreal Impact (1-0) in the Round of 16.
This was followed by a difficult quarter-final against Western Conference powerhouse LACFC which finished in a 1-1 tie, and eventually won by Orlando in a 5-4 penalty shootout.
In the semi-finals, Orlando had another impressive 3-1 victory against Minnesota United SC to clinch its ticket to the final. Nani, with two goals, confirmed to be the key player for Orlando City in this tournament.
The experience of the former Champions League and Euro 2016 Portuguese international was in the spotlight. He proved to be ready for the occasion and Orlando might have found a captain to lead a younger generation into a bright future.
Portland x Orlando: the unexpected final
On the night of the final, the Timbers got first on the scoreboard with Diego Valeri arching a free-kick from the far left. It was nodded in by teammate Larry’s Mabiala who ran towards to ball and finished with a great header (27’), giving Portland the lead.
Orlando came with a reply twelve minutes later. Nani kicked in a low cross from the left, taken by Mauricio Pereyra who fixed himself up on the 18-yard line and scored an equalizer (39’).
But another great team effort from the Timbers set them with the winning goal on the second half, when Eryk Williamson picked up a corner kick from Valeri and passed it on to Dario Zuparic who scored the winning goal for Portland (66’), finishing the final with a 2-1 victory to the Timbers.
Portland Timbers, the 2015 MLS Cup champions added another impressive piece of silverware to their trophy cabinet, mostly through Valeri who won the Man of the Match for his brilliant role as No. 10.
Without the usually-massive contribution of Sebastian Blanco on the wing. It was a devastating night for Orlando SC. They had been going from strength to strength under head coach Oscar Pareja.
Probably what makes this loss sting even more damaging to the Lions pride, was the fact they dominated possession with 64% throughout the game.
However, got only one shot on target (compared to six produced by Portland).
Prize money and a Champions League spot
The Timbers received the Trophy presented by the final sponsor Wells Fargo.
In addition to their second MLS title, this victory gives them $300,000 in prize money. Furthermore, a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.
The final concludes 51 matches with no fans over 26 game days in a unique tournament. Despite the conditions, it will be remembered in soccer history for many years to come.
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