Timbers win MLS is Back title
Atop MLS, that is.
In a one-of-a-kind tournament, the Portland Timbers won the second trophy of their Major League Soccer history on Tuesday, beating Orlando City, 2-1, in the final of the MLS is Back Tournament at Orlando, Florida.
The goals, perhaps appropriately, came from two center backs on set pieces. Larrys Mabiala scored from a first-half free kick and Dario Zuparic netted the winner on a second-half corner kick.
The win is historic in that MLS organized this tournament as a way to compete in the era of COVID-19. It might be (let's hope) the only time this tournament is played — at least in this format.
In addition to a trophy, the Timbers land a coveted spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League and will get $300,000 out of a prize pool of just over $1 million.
It is the second championship as a member of MLS for a Portland team in its 10th season. The Timbers were MLS Cup playoff champions in 2015.
"Credit to the players," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. "Because they came here with a purpose. From the moment that we came here from Portland, the (mindset) was to make sure that we went one game at a time. Everybody demonstrated, game by game, the unity that we have. The maturity that they showed, the way they went into every single game, winning this has been a huge accomplishment."
Portland was mentally and physically tough throughout the tournament, which was played in summer conditions in Florida. The temperature at kickoff Tuesday was 78 degrees with 87% humidity.
Portland posted six wins and one draw on its way to the MLS is Back crown. Only one of those wins, the 3-1 quarterfinal against New York City FC sealed by a late Andy Polo goal, was by more than a single goal.
Sebastian Blanco, the probable Player of the Tournament pending a media and fan vote, said the Tuesday's victory made spending 40 days so far from family worth it.
"I'm very happy because we made it count," Blanco said through an interpreter. "I want to thank my family. I want to thank my daughters. It's been 40 days. It's been very difficult for them, not only because of the loneliness, but because of everything that is happening right now."
Savarese called Tuesday's final "complicated." Portland spent much of the evening without the ball, but kept its focused and converted its chances.
Portland struck in the 27th minute. A perfectly weighted Diego Valeri free kick found Mabiala on a far-post run and the center bak headed the ball down off the turf and into the net.
Orlando City equalized 12 minutes later. Nani was able to dribble to end end line and slip a pass into the box. Mauricio Pereyra battled Portland's Eryk Williamson and was able to punch the ball home.
Jeremy Ebobisse had the first good Timbers chance, but Orlando goalkeeper Pedro Gallese just beat him to a delicate cross from Sebastian Blanco. Gallese's punch caught the ball and also caught Ebobisse in the head — a clean play — forcing the Portland forward to be tended to for several minutes.
Gallese made several strong saves in the second half — including a tremendous stop on a Jeremy Ebobisse chance. But that stop just kept it tied for a few moments, as the resulting corner kick was converted by Zuparic for the Croatian defender's first goal as a member of the Timbers.
Zuparic was able to flick home a chance with his right foot. A Valeri corner kick was controlled on the left side of the penalty area by Eryk Williamson who took a touch and then a low shot that hit traffic and fell to Zuparic five yards in front of goal.
Despite not adding a third goal, Portland was able to close out the match with a calmness that it sometimes lacked at the end of tight games during this tournament.
Orlando City, a surprise finalist in the eyes of many, had a significant possession advantage (63.8%-36.2%). But, as has often been the case during the the tournament, Portland limited dangerous chances.
The Timbers sat deep, at times, but center backs Mabiala and Zuparic were strong in the box, Williamson joined Diego Chara as a presence in holding midfield, and outside backs Jorge Villafana and Chris Duvall kept the space on the flanks under control.
On the flanks, Blanco, starter Marvin Loria and second-half substitute Polo, were called upon to do more defending than is usually required.
"It's not only me or the back line. Seba (Blanco) today played very, very low," said Mabiala, noting that it was 10 men in front of goalkeeper Steve Clark defending together.
Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja said his team needed to be better to break down the Timbers and credited Portland's organized defending in numbers for making it difficult for his team.
"They defended well. They lowered their block and we couldn't break it," Pareja said.
The Lions, in fact, did not manage a shot on target other than their goal from a scramble inside the penalty area.
Orlando's most threatening moment of the second half came from a stoppage-time free kick. The ball found an open Kyle Smith in space about seven yards out, but his volley went well high.
Portland's list of challenges while in Orlando started with handling 40 days away from family members, including young children. It also meant a limited training week leading up to the final, according to Savarese, because of rainy weather.
Entering the tournament, Portland was drawn into one of the more challenging groups on paper. Portland won the group by beating the L.A. Galaxy and Houston, then tying with LAFC in the third group-phase match.
The Timbers survived a scare in the round-of-16, beating FC Cincinnati on penalty kicks after a late-game gaffe by goalkeeper Clark, who responded with a save in the penalty-kick tiebreaker.
Portland then beat two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference — New York City FC and Philadelphia — to reach Tuesday's championship match.
Said Mabiala: "The more difficult the fight is, the more beautiful the victory is at the end."
The Timbers will celebrate, fly home to Portland, and prepare for a return to the MLS regular season in 12 days — which happens to begin with a Aug. 23 match against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park (without fans allowed).
The MLS regular season resumes Wednesday with Nashville SC visiting FC Dallas (5:30 p.m., ESPN plus streaming). Fans will be allowed to attend that match at Frisco, Texas.
How long the restart using home stadium lasts is uncertain. What is certain is that the Timbers put themselves in the history book at perhaps the most unique soccer event ever held.
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