ORLANDO, Fla. – What it means can be left to tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the days that will follow. The debates will come with them, and they’ll be needed. But when the final whistle blew on the final of the MLS is Back Tournament, there was little question what the league’s impromptu competition meant to the Portland Timbers.
“Campeones! Campeones! Campeones!” head coach Giovanni Savarese yelled, embracing his staff as his team’s 2-1 victory over Orlando City SC became official.
“From the moment we came here from Portland,” Savarese explained, “the mindset was to make sure that we win one game at a time and everybody demonstrated, game-by-game, that the unity that we have, the maturity that they showed, the way they went into every single game, achieving this has been a huge accomplishment.”
In hindsight, the Timbers’ seventh game in Orlando may have been their most difficult of the tournament, even if they’d been drawn twice before. But those games were earlier in the tournament, when the stakes were lower, against competition that hadn’t weathered the demands of such a unique competition. Six, seven weeks sequestered in a hotel, just to play soccer. The cost of falling at the last hurdle, with a trophy within reach, felt huge.
That impetus created urgency, and fear, and it meant Orlando arrived ready for the challenge. From the match’s opening moment, their possession tilted the game toward Steve Clark’s goal, and although the Timbers reached the scoreboard first – converting through Larrys Mabiala after Diego Valeri’s superb set-piece service – but the Lions got a late first half reward, with their star and captain, Nani, collapsing the right side of Portland’s defense before finding Mauricio Pereyra.
Though it was 1-1 at the half, it felt like Portland was the side that needed solutions. And just as they did so many times before during a tournament where they outscored their opposition nine to four after halftime, the Timbers found a new level. Claiming control of the game from Orlando, Portland’s pressure eventually led to Dario Zuparic’s first MLS goal – a goal that held up through the final whistle.
“The more difficult the fight is, the more beautiful the victory is at the end,” Mabiala said. “We’ve been through many difficult games, especially the last two that we had to play. They tested us very hard, but the fact that we’ve been through these two opponents shows that we have a lot of personality and character.”
It was an apt scoreline for a team which, despite only allowing only three goals from open play in the tournament, didn’t keep a shutout during their 5-0-2 run. At the other end of the field, Portland was held to fewer than two goals once. On Tuesday, when the realities of the Timbers’ defending and attacking came to bear on the final, it was the team’s centerbacks – not Valeri, or Sebastián Blanco or Jeremy Ebobisse – who scored the team’s goals.
They also helped guide a defense that left Clark relatively unbothered after intermission. Even through most of the first half, as Orlando was defining how the game was played, Clark was largely unbothered. Some lax Portland play on the ball and a moment of Orlando transition changed that, and even in the space after Pereyra’s goal, the Lions proved dangerous. But just as the Portland offense came out of halftime with a new sense of purpose – creating and exploiting spaces with an urgency that wasn’t consistent over the first 45 – the defense began to look like it’s normal MiB self. It’s beguiling that a team that only trailed for 57 minutes over seven games also didn’t keep a clean sheet, but ultimately, the defense executed when it mattered most.
The same could be said for the rest of the team. Over a first half of few chances, Portland took advantage of one of their few, with players laying out at the far most to make the most of Valeri’s inswinging ball. The second half saw the Timbers again, as in the semifinal against the Philadelphia Union, miss chances to build their lead from one goal to two, but they already had their one-goal lead. The pressure they put on Orlando before Zuparic’s goal left the winning score feeling inevitable.
In hindsight, the team’s success over the entire tournament may be remembered with the same feeling, even if we didn’t realize it in real time. As we took in MLS is Back and saw what the unique circumstances would demand, it became clear a team’s culture would matter. Whoever won would have to survive at least six weeks with each other. In addition, a tournament where most games were played on less than six days rest – where players came in with at least a four-month gap since their last competitive action – meant depth was going to matter more than usual. Orlando’s muggy conditions. Rules allowing for five substitutions. If you had a roster that could rely on more than its starters, you had a larger advantage than usual.
The Timbers had that. It was evident again on Tuesday. When the team needed to kill off the match, it was Jaroslaw Niezgoda working in relief of Ebobisse. Andy Polo, enjoying one of his best stretches as a Timbers player, again played a crucial, late-match role. Bill Tuiloma and Felipe Mora were relied on in the match’s final moments, just as others who aren’t typically afforded center stage had contributed from the opening kickoff.
Eryk WIlliamson may be Portland’s best example, but he’s not the only one. Right back Chris Duvall, a trialist in preseason, was able to matchup against a former Manchester United attacker in a tournament final. Marvin Loría stepped into a starting role after Yimmi Chara was injured, while Zuparic justified his offseason arrival. Over the Timbers’ seven games at MiB, Blanco may have made an MVP case, but from starters to regular subs, the team didn’t lack for standout performers.
Such is the case when teams win tournaments. When they do, it’s almost tautological to say “everyone contributed.” But for a team that’s spent three years betting on depth and building a culture that fostered its value, the MLS is Back Tournament title was justification. It was unique, impromptu, and unlike any of the league’s other prizes, but it was also a show of what Portland has built – just one of many reasons why this title might forever be special.