Portland Timbers celebrate with MLS is Back trophy

After 51 matches in 35 days, pulled off by about 750 players and some 500 staffers, the world record-breaking feat that was the MLS is Back Tournament is in the books. Here are 10 things we’ve learned over an unprecedented month-plus at the Wide World of Sports complex.

10) Portland and Orlando are the two sides of the MLS coin

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Fittingly, Tuesday’s tournament final featured the two top performers at MLS is Back, as well as two case studies for competitiveness in an evolving league.

With their dramatic turnaround in their first year under Oscar Pareja, Orlando City are poster children for the speed with which even a basketcase team can reverse their fortunes. That’s a key feature of MLS since its birth, and it’s meant to give hope to the strugglers: If you can coax more out of your existing squad, sprinkle in a few new acquisitions and band it all together with coherent ideas, you’ve got a shot.

Meanwhile, the Timbers have shown how to keep a proven core productive even as its elite performers age. Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco are moving deeper into their 30s but Giovanni Savarese’s leadership and measured refreshment of the roster continues to put them in positions to win games.

9) The sound and fury

If there was a silver lining to a bubble tournament lacking fans in the stands, it was the decision by MLS and ESPN to provide television viewers with rare windows into the sights and sounds of the matches.

Extra cameras and mics arrayed around the pitches at Wide World of Sports allowed us to eavesdrop on coaches’ tactical talks, interactions between players, coaches and referees and other elements often swamped or drowned out by a typical stadium atmosphere. Not everyone approved – San Jose Earthquakes boss Matias Almeyda called it “lamentable” and a “disaster” to have his team talk on a broadcast – but most fans and journalists watching at home were enthralled.

Could some of this extra access be carried over if and when things return towards normal? Here’s hoping.

8) The league is more tactically diverse than ever

MLS has long had a reputation as a “copycat league” where effective formations, roles and tactical wrinkles are quickly scouted and cribbed from or stolen outright. So it’s fascinating to watch the influx and adaptation of ideas complexify as it grows larger and more cosmopolitan by the year.

LAFC’s run-and-gun proactivity. San Jose’s high-octane man-marking system. Orlando and Chicago’s pretty possession patterns. The new twists on pressing and counter-pressing shown by Houston, Philadelphia and New England. The in-game shape-shifting that’s grown increasingly prevalent. Even FC Cincinnati’s bus-parking. The spectrum is broadening and that’s good news for viewers, if more work for the coaches.

7) And coaches matter more than ever

Speaking of the gaffers, they’re the ones that typically conceive and implement the work mentioned above, and their influence is swelling. This is a league whose attitude towards “superstar managers” ranged from skepticism to near-hostility not so long ago, and now head-turning names prowl its technical areas.

What does Almeyda say to his Quakes to make them hunt like hungry wolves for 90-plus minutes? How did Pareja change OCSC’s established narrative so quickly? And how could Atlanta United NOT make a move when Frank de Boer was so clearly getting so much less out of his expensively-assembled side than those other two?

The coaches’ value, or lack thereof, became even more striking in the compressed environs of the bubble tournament.

6) The domestic kids are more ready than you thought…

MIB was a breakout event for a hefty list of Homegrowns and other young US and Canadian players.

Ayo Akinola, Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie were impact performers. Seventeen-year-olds Cameron Dunbar (LA Galaxy) and Kevin Paredes (D.C. United) caught the eye for their respective teams and were two of 11 Homegrowns to make their debuts at MIB, a list that also includes surprise star goalkeeper Thomas Hasal of the Vancouver Whitecaps, quickly dubbed “the Saskatoon Schmeichel” as he held Sporting KC at bay in the round of 16.

Perhaps they were better-suited for the tropical conditions, short turnarounds and extended time away from family. Whatever the reason, many of MLS’s youngsters seized the opportunity provided by this tournament and that should lead their clubs to give them more chances going forward.

5) … But generational shifts are difficult

Developing and signing young players is one thing; smoothly and effectively ushering them into the first team is quite another. Most coaches ideally want to set their kids up for success by surrounding them with supportive and complementary teammates, though it doesn’t always work out like that.

Toronto FC were a good example of this phenomenon. The Reds’ academy has been pumping out talent for some time but meshing the best of them with their proven but aging veterans has been tricky. Here’s what Greg Vanney said about that after their round-of-16 exit and the hands of NYCFC:

“We have a handful or more of guys who are 30-plus. And then we have a lot of guys who are under 21. We have very few guys who are in that middle age group … So there is a bit of us trying to get those two generations together and fit those pieces together, and these tournaments early in the season, and where you’re trying to get guys fit, when you're trying to bring younger players along to see how they're going to fit into your team as you move into a regular season, all that sort of collides.”

4) Supersubs have become almost mandatory

Depth is almost always a feature of winning teams and the grind of tighter, busier schedules in the post-COVID era has magnified that. Yet it’s not just about having more than 11 starting-caliber players at your disposal.

MLS matches have become faster and more tactically complex, heightening the value of game-changing substitutions (and for now at least, you can make five of those instead of three). The impact sub has always had a whiff of specialization about it and at MIB we saw how decisive they can be.

Chris Wondolowski coming off the bench to score big late goals, Ilsinho entering to run at tired defenders, Federico Higuain bringing a late touch of class for D.C. United: These are just a few examples.

3) Dependable center backs are precious

Maybe it’s just an ongoing consequence of this salary-capped league’s emphasis on spending big on attacking weapons, or a reflection of the wider paucity of well-rounded and trustworthy central defenders (in related news, Arsenal just handed David Luiz a new contract).

Whatever the reason, quality center backs don’t grow on trees in MLS, and over the past month we’ve seen how a team’s best-laid plans can be undone by vulnerability in this area. Even established title contenders like LAFC and Seattle seemed to lack the same levels of quality and reliability at the heart of defense that they boast elsewhere, and it factored into their earlier-than-expected exits from Orlando.

2) Old-school DPs still matter

Some believe the David Beckham model of Designated Players – when you shell out big money to sign a big name that moves the needle, ideally both on and off the pitch – is on the wane. That level of investment on an established standout, they say, now makes more sense on rising young ballers with sell-on value like Miguel Almiron or Diego Rossi.

Yes, there are certainly new and in some cases superior strategies available to chief soccer officers around the league. But it was enthralling to watch Nani put Orlando on his shoulders in big moments to haul the Lions to a new level, or Alan Pulido display why he was worth the nearly $10 million Kansas City splashed out on him over the winter, or Carles Gil pull the strings to make the New England Revolution a far better team when he’s on the pitch.

Elite match-winners in or near their prime remain a potent force in MLS.

1) COVID-19 has changed the game

This global viral pandemic continues to cast a long shadow across all sports, MLS included, and that shows no sign of changing now that this bubble tournament is in the books. It might sound obvious but it bears emphasizing.

Coronavirus, or more specifically the United States’ massive difficulties with even containing it, much less eradicating it, will continue to be the lead off-field story, like it or not. It’s the reason MLS is Back was conceived, it led to the withdrawal of two teams and it will constitute a large and ongoing challenge to the process of resuming the regular season in home markets.

Quarantines, extra substitutions, additional hydration breaks, empty or mostly-empty stadiums, a dramatically different-looking season calendar, day-of-game travel for away matches, a renewed need for roster depth, a radically impacted international transfer market, players opting out of matches because of additional risk factors at home – the list goes on and on. It’s hard to imagine what North American professional soccer will look like whenever it does eventually emerge from this global crisis.