After 50 MLS is Back matches, we've reached the MLS is Back Tournament Final presented by Wells Fargo, and it promises to be full of fireworks between sudden upstarts Orlando City SC and consistent trophy contenders Portland Timbers (Tuesday, 8:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada).
As with any title bout, it's always a good idea to get amped up for kickoff by comparing the two prizefighters against each other in every relevant area, both on and off the field. We've pulled out the measuring tape and scales for just that purpose, so let's get right to it.
GOALKEEPERS: Orlando City
The Lions have reached the final thanks to several in-form players, and their netminder is certainly no exception. Pedro Gallese has played like the lauded international he is, saving the Lions' bacon on a few occasions as they worked their way to the title game. He is at the top of his game at the moment, which gives him a small edge.
The same cannot be said of Portland backstop
, who would ordinarily be good enough value to call this position even. He's also had some starring episodes during the tournament, but they've been mixed in with some mistakes and near-gaffes. Unlike Gallese, Clark has looked a bit shaky in the run-up to the final.
DEFENDERS: Orlando City
With all the excitement around the Lions' run to the final, it has flown well under the radar just how sturdy their back line has been. Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson (who, incredibly, has committed but one foul in six tournament starts) have quickly formed a foreboding partnership in the middle, while Joao Moutinho and Ruan have been quite the dynamic duo out wide.
It truly has been the start of a new age for Orlando City's defense. Though the Timbers (1.17 goals against average) have been only slightly less stingy than Orlando City (0.83 GAA) during the tournament, they've looked a lot shakier in defense. New boy Dario Zuparic and central partner Larrys Mabiala have endured some notable struggles, while all the wide backs (Portland has started four different fullbacks in Orlando) have been merely serviceable, at best. It also does not bode well that the entire unit has been giving away potentially costly dead balls left, right and center in their end.
I feel it's safe to say that no one has been more impressed with Orlando City's midfield crew since a tough group stage opener. The first game was sub-par, but Jhegson Mendez, Mauricio Pereyra, Uri Rosell and Junior Urso have all been as solid as a rock ever since. They've slowed traffic toward their own goal and kept it moving positively in the other direction. They've given the club a structure it has (for the most part) lacked since its inception, and you can see the results.
That all said, the Lions simply cannot match the va-va-voom star quality offered by the two Diegos. It's the same old story: Chara snuffs out opposing rushes and then drives the ball toward Valeri territory, where the skipper's Timbers shirt may as well be a maestro's tux. The insertion of two-way workhorse Eryk Williamson in the midfield slot between them has only made Portland's core stronger.
WINGERS: Orlando City
Nobody at this tournament has had more winning impact for his club than Portland's Sebastian Blanco. He has taken the mantle as the Timbers' lead playmaker in Orlando by ringing up three goals and five helpers. The 32-year-old has been everywhere in attack for Portland, but he's had to be since Yimmi Chara went down with an injury.
The play of the Lions' flank crew has arguably been the key reason that they find themselves in a championship match for the first time. Blanco is likely the only one who can interrupt Nani's collision course with the tournament MVP award. The veteran has consistently busted his hump getting to the final third, and has made the effort count once he got there. Nani has two MLS Is Back winners (three if you count his decisive shootout conversion against LAFC) and played a part in setting up another. Meanwhile, bookend troublemaker Chris Mueller has three goals of his own.
Lions forward Tesho Akindele is a scrappy presence that occupies center backs off the ball. Despite not seeing many touches, he manages to be a solid contributor. He came off the bench to seal their group win over NYCFC and netted the winner against Montreal.
However, Timbers Jeremy Ebobisse is having a "just give me the damn starting job already" tournament. He's scored four goals in Orlando, including three that opened a game's scoring. He also drags center back tandems back and forth, and is the more capable build conduit.
With capable cover all over the pitch, the Timbers are well-equipped to turn to fresh legs in a variety of situations. Even so, the real difference between the two bench crews comes down to Portland's offensive depth. Felipe Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda have combined for four goals in the Timbers' first eight games of 2020, while Polo and Tomas Conechny have proper play-driving skills.
The Lions' best sub corps resides in midfield, where Andres Perea and whichever of Mendez or Urso doesn't start provide ample central park relief. They also have a couple of helpful defenders in reserve, but the back-up attack stable is rather one-note (pacy, but less than clinical near to goal).
When we reduce their jobs to a single-game situation, there's not really much to separate Orlando City boss Oscar Pareja and Portland opposite Giovani Savarese. They both understand their squads, and how to get the most out of them. With the Timbers' MLS is Back run,Savarese is now 11-4 in knockout games against MLS opposition. Meanwhile, all Pareja has done is turn the Lions from cowardly to noble on short order.
INTANGIBLES: Orlando City
With all due respect to the shoulder chip that Portland plays so well with, it seems they're going to need more than that to overcome the franchise 180° being pulled off by the Lions. Each Orlando City win has raised their belief that they can actually grab the prize at the end. The Lions' mojo momentum continues to build, growing from a ripple to a swell to a tidal wave that the Timbers must now find a way to stop. That's something New York City, Philadelphia,LAFCand Minnesota United were all unable to do.