It's fitting that the first* MLS is Back Tournament culminates with the Portland Timbers vs. Orlando City on Tuesday night in the Final presented by Wells Fargo (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS2 in Canada). Not because of any cosmic reason or any special type of karma, but because these really have been the two best, most complete teams in the league over the past month. You could argue that other teams were occasionally more explosive in attack, and there's certainly something to be said for Philly's transition moments and Minnesota's overall defensive performance.
(*) Yeah, "first." I take Commissioner Don Garber at his word when he said at halftime of Orlando City vs. Minnesota on Thursday night that there are no immediate plans for a reboot of this tournament, but also that the powers that be have been keeping their options open. And given how much damn fun this thing has been, and how snugly a six-week tournament would fit in as a preseason replacement ... maybe it doesn't happen in 2021. But put my vote solidly in the "eventually, there will be a second MLS is Back Tournament" column.
But overall, from "do they defend compactly?" to "can they create chances via possession?" to "how are they on set pieces?" to "do they get rattled when pressed," the answers for each of these teams is at the very least "yeah, they're above average at that" to "actually they're the best in the league and it's a joy to watch them play."
Usually in a tournament you get one team that sneaks through, or just had the right match-ups. That's not the case here. The Portland Timbers and – God, I can't believe I'm about to type these words – Orlando City have been the best teams in MLS. This final should be a banger.
What Portland will do
As I wrote above, both these teams are at least pretty good at everything, so you can expect a little of everything. Sit back in a shell and they have the tools to crack you open, but come up too high and hard and they will happily drop their own line, then hit you on the counter. Fall asleep on set pieces, as Philly did, and home you will go.
To beat the Timbers you've got to be ready for all of it. Think back to the group stage when LAFC actually outplayed Portland for a huge chunk of the game, but left chances on the board with some less-than-stellar finishing. Gio Savarese made a couple of changes, took advantage of his team's superior depth, and got a deserved draw – one that could actually have been a win if Jeremy Ebobisse (who got the equalizer on a set piece) made a slightly harder run near full time.
That was the worst they've looked all tournament. They got the result they needed anyway. Here's a look at the team they've always been:
Here's a look at what makes them more dangerous than ever – what makes them the team they've become. The Timbers are as good as they've ever been at hurting you via possession, especially when things are running through Sebastian Blanco and Eryk Williamson in central midfield:
"Blanco in central midfield" is the rub, though. The little Argentine has been the tournament MVP (him or Nani, anyway), and has done so while sliding between the No. 10 role in a 4-2-3-1 and an inverted left winger role in what, at times, plays as a 4-4-1-1. Diego Valeri isn't really a midfielder anymore, and while he can do some of the job, asking him to do all of it over the course of 90 August minutes at the end of a very long month in Florida doesn't strike me as a super smart thing to do, especially since it would mean putting Blanco in a position – left winger – that requires a lot of defensive effort against Orlando.
I think the other decisions Savarese has to make in this one are all straightforward:
- Draw a deep-ish line of confrontation since pressing Orlando from the start is useless.
- Don't release your fullbacks to overlap because the return on investment isn't there.
- Start Ebobisse because that keeps Jaroslaw Niezgoda in the super-sub role, where he's been a game-changer.
But the Valeri decision is the real one. If Valeri starts at the 10 and Blanco is at left wing, then Blanco has to worry about tracking
Usain Bolt Ruan on the overlap for, presumably, the full 90 minutes.
That's not the way to use the MVP in a final. If I'm Savarese, I'm planning to use Valeri as my first second-half sub, as early as the 50th minute if that's what the game calls for.
Obviously Valeri, and how he'll be used. But Williamson provides something out of central midfield that the Timbers have never really had, even back when Darlington Nagbe was playing this spot:
The Timbers hit you from unexpected angles now. By definition that's an x-factor.
Another one is the health of Yimmi Chara. If he can't go, then maybe Savarese feels like he's got no choice and has to start Valeri.
What Orlando City will do
While it's fair to say that the Timbers have established themselves as very good-to-excellent at everything, I think it's just as fair to say that the Lions have, over the past month, established themselves as the best pure possession team in the league. They have officially become unpressable, playing through Philly, NYCFC and LAFC – three of the best pressing teams in the league – and then finally getting Minnesota to back off after a furious first 30 minutes.
On one occasion the Loons, who had just ripped San Jose apart with their press, forced an Orlando turnover in a bad spot. Look at what happened:
That's just superb from both sides, some of the very best soccer that we've seen in this tournament.
But it also just wore the Loons down, and that's what they looked like in the 15th minute. They weren't able to get that press up to Orlando's center backs by the 35th minute, and if you allow Orlando's center backs time on the ball, they will play over you or through you. That's just firmly established at this point:
Which is all by way of saying that it's probably just not worth pressing the Lions at this point. It'll probably be a mid- or even low-block Portland team out there, one that's daring Orlando to come upfield and try to play through them. Orlando can do it, mind you, but they are an order of magnitude less dangerous in those situations because they do not have a top tier No. 9.
Tesho Akindele has had his moments, but has always been best in a less featured-role, and while I'm a big fan of Daryl Dike, their top SuperDraft pick from this past January, he has a distinct air of "not yet ready." Benji Michel has played some center forward as well, but he's not really one to occupy center backs, instead preferring to drift away from them and run past them.
My buddy Brian, a Day 1 Lions fan, is not confident:
Prediction time I suppose. Portland has to be a prohibitive favorite. This is the first time in tournament play Orlando hasn’t had the extra day of rest, plus Savarese has rested his attackers regularly. I do think it’ll be a cagey match - both teams prefer to press in spurts, and Orlando’s back line and defensive midfield are too good to get destroyed. I just don’t see an easy route to a win unless Nani does THAT again.
Maybe he should be more confident, though, because Nani has been doing variations of THAT all tournament long. After breaking down during last summer's swoon, during which he had just one goal and four assists over 14 games as Orlando's season cratered, the 33-year-old Portuguese winger has looked reborn. Apparently nine months of rest does a body good, and it's a fair bet that if Portland wins, Blanco's the MVP and if Orlando wins, Nani's the MVP. You get DPs to be match-winners, and while he clearly wore down under the strain of a full season of travel last year, this short-form tournament at home is just what the doctor ordered.
Of course, you could argue that Nani's not even the most important player on his team. There's a case for Orlando's No. 10, Mauricio Pereyra, owning that distinction:
Pereyra's movement off the ball is a joy to behold. He has now outfoxed Premier League veteran Victor Wanyama and all-time best MLS d-mid Ozzie Alonso, while in between he gave a harsh lesson to youngster James Sands. If he gets Diego Chara chasing shadows, then things get pretty dicey pretty quickly for Portland.
And then there's the Ruan thing, as well as the Joao Moutinho thing on the other side. The reason Orlando are so good with the ball isn't just because of their midfield and center backs, but because their fullbacks offer a nice balance of width and penetration as well. Moutinho's been on the ball as much as almost anyone in the tournament, and while he's not going to win "Best Young Player of the Tournament" because Diego Rossi scored seven goals ... he kind of should. Moutinho's been incredible in possession, very good in attack, and more than just "good enough" defensively. He's a weapon, but also a safety valve and a problem-solver.
Ruan is the problem-causer. A lot of this game's shape will be determined by how Savarese decides to meet that threat, because "let's just run with him" is not an option.
Three weeks ago Chris Mueller was one of the breakout stars of this tournament, but the winger's largely gone quiet since then. Mueller's always involved – he's energetic on both sides of the ball, and smart about the runs he makes. But he, like the rest of the Orlando City attackers, produces only in spurts.
The Mueller of the group stage ... if that guy's on the field in this one, the Lions have a serious weapon at their disposal. If not, then they are pretty seriously short of firepower.
The other issue could actually be in central midfield. Sebastian Mendez has all kinds of talent on both sides of the ball, and when he just lets the game unfold he can be one of the league's better box-to-box midfielders. But he has a tendency, in big moments, to start thinking he's Xavi or Pirlo out there, taking risks on the ball and with passes that are, uh, ill-advised.
Both Mueller and Mendez have big futures. Big as in "decisive players in big moments." Orlando City will very much be hoping that those futures are now.