Merritt Paulson -- Shades -- 2017

As the Knockout Round at the MLS is Back Tournament gets underway Saturday, a collection of teams are looking forward to games beyond Orlando. Ten, to be exact, and others will join them before a champion is crowned at the Aug. 11 final.

As for what comes next, Commissioner Don Garber has previously said that MLS intends to continue the regular season with a revised schedule in home markets, followed by the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and MLS Cup. 

In spite of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is confident that the regular season will get underway later this summer. Any plans would factor in guidance from MLS medical experts and infectious disease advisors. 

“I’d say I’m confident,” Paulson said on a recent Banter episode. “It’s not without its challenges. A lot of thinking, equal amount if not more thinking, is going into the second phase of this season post-Orlando MLS is Back Tournament. And a lot more moving parts there. I know the league is working tirelessly right now in ironing out a plan. Again, not without its challenges, but I’d say I’m confident.”

The MLS regular season began Feb. 29, but teams only played two games before the pandemic intensified and play was suspended. The MLS is Back Tournament started July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and the three group-stage matches counted towards the standings. 

While Knockout Round games won’t result in points in the standings, plenty’s on the line. The winner gets an automatic spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, and there’s a $1.1 million prize pool.

As the focus shifts, Paulson’s Timbers await a Round of 16 game next Tuesday against FC Cincinnati (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US, TSN in Canada). He’s similarly confident, and said his team’s quickly improved this season under head coach Giovanni Savarese.

“The game versus Minnesota we played some real quality stuff in the first half and our guys got frustrated with their lack of finishing in the final third and their defensive shape just broke down,” Paulson said. “And we overcorrected in that game against Nashville. I was as unhappy as I’ve ever been after a victory. We just played a really defensive game that wasn’t indicative of the kind of balance this team could have. 

“But I think Gio’s got a much more balanced approach right now that’s indicative of what this team was going to become. We’re deep … Don’t sleep on the Timbers."