It was born from a pandemic. It was unprecedented. It was polarizing. It was predictably bizarre. It wasn’t necessarily what we wanted from 2020, but it ended up being what we needed. It set a Guinness World Record, because why not? It was 51 historic games packed into 34 simultaneously compelling and weird days of soccer.
It was MLS is Back, and we’ll never forget the summer that felt like a lifetime or the tournament that was once in a lifetime.
Two teams were withdrawn before participating, but the other 24 had few issues. Major League Soccer’s Black players found their collective voice, their fists and their goals reaching higher than ever before. The stands were empty, but supporters from across the league kept watch over every match. By the time the final rolled around, there were thousands of negative tests, star turns, fairytale runs, enough absurdity to keep it interesting – Quakes-‘Caps, never forget – and a deserving champion.
In a sign of the times, we got champion face masks and a mad rush to celebrate with a video board, too. In a sign of the times, plenty are rushing to put an asterisk on a championship that never claimed to be normal or repeatable.
Go ahead and try to tell Giovanni Savarese and the Portland Timbers that they didn’t win a major trophy after their 2-1 win on Tuesday night, that none of this really mattered. You saw the emotion in those celebrations. You saw Diego Valeri’s face when he hoisted the cup. You saw Orlando City’s players grapple with a first-ever final that slipped through their fingertips. A coach lost his job because his team flopped, and a coveted Concacaf Champions League spot went to the victors.
“I said it before that this tournament had something special which was the qualification to next year’s Champions League,” Sebastian Blanco, the likely adidas Player of the Tournament, said as the beer and champagne dried. “So for us getting back to an international tournament gives us prestige and gives us desire for what’s to come.”
Thanks to COVID-19, we don’t know exactly what’s to come. We do know massive sacrifices were required to make MLS is Back happen.
What we didn’t see were the FaceTime calls home to wives, girlfriends, children, parents, siblings and friends. We didn’t feel the anxiety of near constant testing. We didn’t see the effort every single person in the bubble put in to make this massive undertaking – medically, logistically and competitively – come good after the Nashville and Dallas departures.
“I always think that the more difficult the fight is the more beautiful the victory is at the end,” said the Timbers’ Larrys Mabiala, a quote that surely resonated throughout the bubble. “… The last 10 days have been very hard because I’ve had my son calling me every day crying and asking me when I was going to come back. So it’s been tough. But you know, when we had these conversations, we just told ourselves that we need to make it worth it.”
Don’t dare tell them this time away from the people they love wasn’t worth it. Don’t disrespect these players or coaches by minimizing their accomplishments or their sacrifices.
For the Timbers, the joy and spoils of victory added another trophy and memorable moment to their long, storied history. For Orlando City SC, the against-all-odds run was a historic almost, an Oscar Pareja-led first step to begin shifting the culture and fortunes of a club that’s never found much traction on the field in MLS.
“Let’s be honest we must accept we are not the same team as before,” Nani told reporters. “And you all know that. You all saw our games you have seen this final, you’ve seen the way we’ve been playing and the way every team who plays against us behaves against us … I’m so happy to be on this team with this coach and with this staff.”
And while Portland will bask in the glow of their accomplishment, at least briefly, for MLS it’s on to the next one.
There’s literally no time to celebrate pulling off what once seemed improbable, if not impossible. MLS should be proud of the way it handled MLS is Back, but in less than 24 hours there’s a game to be played in Frisco, Texas. The league knows better than anyone else that the protocols must hold up or tough decisions must be made, quickly and decisively.
We don’t have the U.S. Open Cup. We likely don’t have the Canadian Championship. The Leagues Cup can got kicked down the road. Same for Campeones Cup. The Supporters’ Shield will be so unbalanced that it might be an afterthought. We have to wait all the way to December to play MLS Cup. One step, one game at a time until then.
So far at least, MLS is Back is what we’ve got, and it gave us so much more than soccer. The final may have been an apt finishing touch, but it was the tournament’s opening game that provided the real legacy. Our world is changing, no matter what you thought of the soccer, now and forever.
We’ll remember MLS is Back for what it was and what it had to be. It was truly unforgettable, but hopefully a one-off. I’ll never forget the moment the league’s players took the first step in being the change in an ever-changing world. May that legacy last more than a lifetime.