Oscar Pareja - Gio Savarese - split image

MLS is Back Tournament Final a showcase for North American soccer dream | Charles Boehm

Like most of the planet outside Europe and South America, the Canadian and US soccer communities have looked abroad for much of their histories, using the established global elite as a measuring stick and rooting for their exports to prosper in the world’s biggest competitions.

It’s been far from one-way traffic, however. Many more have arrived on this continent from elsewhere with a ball in their hands and the game in their head, ready to pioneer of one of the sport’s final frontiers and write new stories on fresh soil. Two of that sort will face off across their respective technical areas at Wide World of Sports in the MLS is Back Tournament Final presented by Wells Fargo on Tuesday night (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVA Sports 2 in Canada).

Oscar Pareja and Giovanni Savarese are “hyphenated Americans” who arrived here in pursuit of their destiny from Colombia and Venezuela, respectively, and are building their own particular footballing legacies in their adopted land. “Papi” Pareja planted his flag at FC Dallas before moving onto Club Tijuana in Liga MX, while “Gio” is deeply associated with the MetroStars and Cosmos of his New York-area stomping grounds, then fluidly translated that passion to Soccer City USA.

“Soccer, if you treat it like it’s life and you have the same values as life, I think you build something strong,” Savarese told me in an extended sitdown two years ago. “You bring a good foundation and a good base, and I think at the end when you go back and you see these people again, you want them to remember you, not only for being a coach but to be a person that, at least you left them something. And they know that you also grew, because they were able to give you something.”

Each have proven their expertise over their coaching careers and during this Tournament with Orlando City and the Portland Timbers, respectively. Both contributed their blood, sweat and tears to the early years of MLS as standout players, and later progressed onto distinguished service at both the academy and professional levels. They’ve shown a knack for educating, organizing and inspiring across languages and cultures, a useful trait in a diverse league reflective of its two home nations.

I suspect these two video clips, both recorded upon entry to the semifinal-winning teams’ locker rooms, will illustrate this better than I can. First there’s Portland:

And then Orlando:

Whatever your view of MLS is Back as a whole, you must recognize that it's represented a totally new and uniquely challenging situation for the teams and people involved. It's required leaving one’s home and family during a pandemic to take up residence on what US men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter dubbed “a soccer island” for a month or more, isolating yourself in your team and sweating out gallons under the Florida summer sun. It's been a daunting mental and physical task for the players.

And yet, the finalists are playing their best soccer and seem to be enjoying it. There’s a bit of alchemy at work here, in terms of personalities meshing and success validating the process. There are also two worldly, savvy leaders steering it.

We knew the Timbers were capable of this: They did it during the back half of 2018 and almost won that year’s MLS Cup, then mounted a push to the semifinals of the 2019 U.S. Open Cup. Orlando have been more of a surprise, Pareja reaping early returns on his rejuvenation project with the Lions, and doing so in both scoreboard and aesthetic terms.

“I’m proud they’re getting the results because they’re doing it respecting their ways. They don’t do it in just any form or way. They do it respecting the idea that has been proposed from the beginning,” Pareja said after Thursday’s 3-1 win over Minnesota United.

“The players just put all the excuses away and just kept going and going and I think they’re happy. They’re playing with confidence and they accept each other and they’re understanding that this is a day-by-day, growing path. And the guys who came from different countries and different clubs, they have helped us as well to gel and then we’ve created a good momentum and a good team. We’re still in building mode, but we’re proud.”

At a time when the shape and future of the so-called “American dream” is a contentious topic in the public discourse, to say the least, it’s powerful to see it flourishing on the pitches and sidelines of MLS.

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