Home Soccer MLS is Back tournament final preview

MLS is Back tournament final preview

by Joshua Doering

All 26 Major League Soccer teams traveled to Orlando for the MLS is Back Tournament, 24 actually participated and now only two remain: Orlando City and the Portland Timbers. New coach Oscar Pareja has led an Orlando team that has never made the playoffs on an unexpected journey to the brink of a trophy and a place in next season’s CONCACAF Champions League. 

The final obstacle in Orlando’s way is Giovanni Savarese’s Portland Timbers with the MLS Cup loss to Atlanta United in 2018 still fresh in their minds. It’s the hometown upstarts against the grizzled veterans for the honor of winning a tournament nobody quite knows what to make of in terms of legacy and importance. What is certain, however, is that the champion walks away with $1.1 million in addition to the trophy and Champions League spot. 

Here’s what you need to know before Orlando and Portland face off at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex on Aug. 11. 

By the numbers:

3 – Portland has ended the game with less than 40% possession three times this tournament. Those games resulted in a draw with LAFC, a quarterfinal win over NYCFC and a semifinal win over the Philadelphia Union. Orlando City has possessed the ball at least 48% of the time in all six of its games. 

4 – Four of Orlando City’s 11 goals have come after the 80th minute and were scored by four different players (Nani, Tesho Akindele, João Moutinho and Benji Michel). Mason Toye’s 83rd minute goal for Minnesota United in the semifinals was the first Orlando conceded after the 68th minute. 

5 – The Timbers have conceded five penalty kicks in their six MLS is Back tournament games. Goalkeeper Steve Clark saved the first, the next three went in and Philadelphia’s Sergio Santos missed the most recent one.

8 – Portland’s Sebastian Blanco has directly contributed to eight goals in the tournament, the second-highest total behind LAFC’s Diego Rossi (10). He contributed an assist in each of the Timbers’ first five games in Orlando and scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals. 

9 – Orlando City won nine of its 34 regular season games in 2019 and entered MLS is Back without a win in 2020. A victory over Portland would be Orlando’s fifth in six tries, with one coming via a shootout.  

Matchup to watch: Nani and Mauricio Pereyra vs. Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson

Seven minutes of individual brilliance from Nani was all Orlando City needed to get past Minnesota in the semifinals. He was isolated against 23-year-old Hassani Dotson twice and found the back of the net both times. While Nani has stolen the headlines with three goals and four assists, Pereyra is arguably the more important player for Orlando. Everything Orlando does going forward flows through those two.

Nobody in MLS is better at taking away the space that has made Orlando’s attack so dangerous than Chara. He is the best pure defensive midfielder in the league and it’s not particularly close. To make things even more difficult for Portland’s opponents, Chara has found an eager partner in the 23-year-old Williamson. Williamson has played more minutes in Orlando than he had in his career prior to the tournament and has gained the trust of Savarese with consistently impressive performances. The battle in the midfield is going to go a long way in determining who comes out on top. 

X-Factor: Diego Valeri

Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Valeri is going to have something to say before this game is over. He entered a tie game at halftime against NYCFC in the quarterfinals and scored 20 minutes later. In the semis, he started in place of the injured Yimmi Chara and Portland got two goals off his corner kicks. The 34-year-old Argentine cannot carry this Timbers team the way he used to, but he is no longer asked to do so. What he can do  — and has already done at MLS is Back — is make the difference in a close game. The more tired players get, the more dangerous a player like Valeri is, especially if he’s only been on the field a handful of minutes. 

Portland wins if: The Timbers are able to play their game

It sounds cliché, but it is absolutely true. The Timbers are more than happy to sit in their well-organized defensive blocks, watch their opponent struggle to break them down and then rip them apart with a lethal counter-attack. Portland has no interest in holding onto the ball, as demonstrated by the possession statistics mentioned earlier. The worst-case scenario for Savarese’s team is an early goal from Orlando that forces them to come out of their shell and chase the game. With the form they’re in right now, the Timbers are nearly impossible to beat when the game is played on their terms. 

Orlando wins if: Its much-improved defense holds up

The longest-serving member of Orlando’s defensive unit is the aforementioned Moutinho, who joined the club in December 2018. That includes goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who is in his first year with the team. The center back pairing of Robin Jansson and Antônio Carlos has finally provided some stability at the back for a team whose roster has been in flux since entering the league in 2015. Just like a goal from Orlando forces Portland to change its approach, a goal from the Timbers allows them to sit back and attack on the counter. If Orlando allows Portland to open the scoring, it could very well be game over. There’s always a chance for more late-game magic if Orlando can keep it close for the first 75 minutes. 

Photo by Jamie Smed / Flickr

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