Disney World likes to market itself as the most magical place on earth, and luckily for the Portland Timbers, they harnessed enough of that magic to win the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, Florida.
The Timbers beat Orlando City 2-1 in the tournament final Tuesday night, capping off a Cinderella run through an unusual one-off tournament hosted in a “bubble” at Disney World where teams could avoid COVID-19.
As the last team standing, the Timbers have earned a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League and can try for a spot to represent the region in FIFA’s Club World Cup.
“For us this is going to be a great memory,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said of winning the tournament. “It’s special, it’s unique and we’re able to lift this trophy that gives us the possibility to compete outside the United States. It’s a special feeling. Who knows if there will be another tournament like this, but we’re proud to give another trophy to Portland.”
Dario Zuparic, the center back who signed with the Timbers ahead of the 2020 season, picked a fine moment to score his first goal in MLS, notching the crucial game-winner. Diego Valeri served in a corner kick in the 66th minute, which Eryk Williamson settled and fired from inside the box. His shot deflected off Jeremy Ebobisse’s foot, and Zuparic redirected the ball into goal.
The Timbers opened scoring in the 27th minute on another set piece. Valeri fired an in-swinging free kick into the box and Larrys Mabiala did well to muscle off his defender, João Moutinho, and nod the ball into goal. It’s Mabiala’s eighth career goal for the Timbers.
Orlando equalized 12 minutes later. Orlando’s most influential player of the tournament, Nani, dribbled up the endline and fired a low cross to Mauricio Pereyra at the top of the 6-yard box. Williamson missed his tackle and Pereyra did well to fire past goalkeeper Steve Clark.
“You know, I always think that the more difficult the fight is, the more beautiful the victory is,” Mabiala said. “At the end, we’ve been through many difficult games, especially the last two against Orlando and Philadelphia. They tested us very hard, but the fact that we’ve been through this opposition showed we have a lot of personality and character.”
The monthlong MLS is Back tournament has been hosted in Orlando, where teams were sequestered at Disney World resorts and played games in empty stadiums at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The tournament was a grueling gauntlet, where teams played every few days in humid Florida heat.
The Timbers were not favorites, with pundits and scientific models giving them low odds to reach the end. But the Timbers defied expectations, with Savarese telling The Oregonian/OregonLive before the final: “We don’t play for the commentators, we don’t play for the writers.”
“There’s a great feeling to achieve a historical moment for our club,” Savarese said after Tuesday’s win. “Credit to the players because they came here with a purpose from the moment that we arrived from Portland. The mindset was to take it one game at a time and everybody demonstrated, game by game, the unity we had.”
In addition to a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, players were also enticed by up to $1.1 million in prize money, including a guaranteed $300,000 the Timbers have won for being the last team standing. Sebastian Blanco joked afterward that his family deserved the prize money after he had been gone for 40 days.
But launching the tournament amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy.
Early negotiations between the MLS players union and the league turned acrimonious, with the league threatening a lockout. The two sides came to terms, which included quarantining players for a shorter period than the league wanted, and COVID-19 outbreaks later forced FC Dallas and Nashville SC out of the tournament shortly after they arrived in the MLS is Back bubble.
“Personally, I have three kids, two are toddlers, and the last 10 days have been very hard because I had my son calling me every morning, crying asking when I was going to come back,” Mabiala said. “It’s been tough. We just told ourselves that we need to make it worth it — we don’t want to be gone this long and go back to our houses without the trophy.”
The unusual nature of the tournament raised concerns that the players may not be fully engaged, but the Timbers’ run to the final was marked by a gritty desire to win.
Things got tense in the 32nd minute of Tuesday’s final when Blanco went over to Orlando coach Oscar Pareja on the sideline and confronted him while making a hand gesture that appeared to accuse Pareja of running his mouth. The referee, Ismail Elfath, scolded Blanco and watched as Blanco and Pareja apparently settled their squabble.
Coming into the final, Savarese opted to stick with what has worked, making no changes from the starting lineup that beat the Philadelphia Union in the semifinal.
Orlando has also been remarkably consistent. The Lions’ starting lineup in the final was the same one as the previous three matches and, of their 11 starters, nine of them started all seven matches of the tournament.
The de facto hosts of the tournament, Orlando City has never qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs since joining the league in 2015. But Pareja, a first-year coach for the Lions, has transformed a roster that isn’t significantly different to the one that finished in second-to-last place last year.
The focus now turns to the MLS regular season, which resumes Wednesday when FC Dallas will host Nashville SC — with a limited number of fans in the stands.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said fans will be allowed to games in some markets where local authorities allow it, despite health experts largely cautioning that it’s not safe for crowds to gather while the coronavirus is not under control. The Timbers have not asked for permission to host fans at their first home games back.
“I’m confident that we have a good plan in place,” Garber told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman when asked Tuesday about the decision to host fans this season, without specifically outlining the protocols in place for fans. “We’ve just got to get started, Taylor. We’ve got to get back and see if it can work. If it does, we’ll continue and if it doesn’t, we’ll have to address it.”
The Timbers’ regular season began in March with a win and a loss before the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group stage of the MLS is Back tournament, which the Timbers finished with two wins and a draw, counts toward the regular season.
The Timbers’ first match outside the MLS is Back bubble will be Aug. 23 against the Seattle Sounders at an empty Providence Park.
They will then play a match every three days until Sept. 6. The MLS regular season schedule has not been set beyond that, but Garber said he expects the playoffs and MLS Cup to be played before the year ends.
— Caitlin Murray for The Oregonian/OregonLive
Note to readers: if you purchase something through one of our affiliate links we may earn a commission.