Diego Chara, training, 7.16.20
Photo by Richard Farley

Unique twist of MLS is Back Tournament has Timbers focusing on regular-season points

ORLANDO, Fla. – Before the MLS Is Back Tournament started, the competition looked closer to something we’d see in international soccer than what we’re used to in league play. Eventually, there would be six groups of four teams, each playing three games, destined to be funneled into the tournament’s knockout round. For a club-soccer world that tends to be composed of younger coaches, MLS Is Back would give some a glimpse of their futures, the thinking holds. When their resumes are full and the grind of weekly soccer loses its charm, the lure of the world’s most popular competitions, of guiding a nation’s soccer hopes, would lead to these types of tournaments.

That thinking might have overlooked one important caveat – a natural reaction when such a unique tournament was announced. Now, as teams decide how to approach their final games of group play, they have to remember what makes MLS Is Back different. They have to remember that each group-stage game, regardless of whether you advance, count in the regular-season standings.

“I think it’s massive,” Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson said, asked about the regular-season’s impact on the ground at MLS Is Back. “Being able to take six points, hopefully nine points into the regular season would be massive.

“We had a pretty decent start to the year. Moving forward, having six points in the bag and continuing to try and add points to the back end of the season, [that] will be really good for us.”

Those six points have the Timbers sitting third in the Western Conference. Depending on how results transpire over the next two days, Portland would be tied on points with Sporting Kansas City at the top of the standings. Minnesota United FC, sitting on 10 points ahead of their final group-stage game, has a chance to rest higher than both teams, should they defeat the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday.

That scenario, though, assumes a Portland victory on Thursday against Los Angeles FC (7:30pm PT, ESPN2), something that’s far from an assumption. The Supporters’ Shield holders may be without their best player, defending league Most Valuable Player Carlos Vela, but they still lead the tournament in goals, having scored nine times in two games. As a third opponent in 11 days, LAFC represents a heightened challenge.

“[MLS Is Back’s format is] even more difficult,” head coach Giovanni Savarese explained, when asked about the competition’s format in the context of Group F’s final game. “Maybe in a World Cup-type [tournament], you would make some rotations, but we’ll go into this game with the best possible lineup, one that we believe will give us what we need …

“We have in mind not only getting three points, being competitive, but trying to be on top of the group.”

The approach dovetails nicely with one of Savarese’s prevailing mantras – a mission statement he’s used consistently during his two-plus years at the club. Even on Tuesday, during his national media availability, the phrase resurfaced: “Every game for us is a final.” On some occasions, that creed has had to apply to approach more than selection, but with four days’ rest since his team’s victory over Houston, Savarese can be ambitious in his approach.

“We want to win every game,” forward Jeremy Ebobisse affirmed. “Given that you have a tournament setting after a group stage which counts toward the regular season, you want to put yourself in the best position possible to make sure you have the best draw after the fact.”

With a win or a draw against LAFC, the Timbers will win Group F and play either FC Cincinnati or the New York Red Bulls pending those team’s Wednesday result. They’ll also get another day’s rest, earning a Round of 16 match scheduled for Tuesday instead of Monday. With a loss, they’ll play on Monday, and they’ll face either the Chicago Fire or Seattle Sounders FC.

At that point, the regular-season implications will be done. The tournament will be a pure knockout competition, with prospects for the rest of the 2020 campaign yet to be announced.

“No one knows what’s going to happen in August or September,” Ebobisse says, “so you have to take everything minute-by-minute, game-by-game. If you can get three points, then you take those three points. You don’t rest on draw, or a close loss.”