Written By: Nick Holmberg @BurgendyBoys96
After an absolutely thrilling pair of semifinal matches, we are down to the last two teams standing in the MLS is Back Tournament. We have seen great soccer on display in Orlando with world class goals, incredible saves, and plenty of drama throughout the tournament. This has easily been one of the most open tournaments we’ve ever seen, which has made it incredibly fun to watch.
It is hard to argue against the Portland Timbers and Orlando City SC being in the final as well as being the two best teams in the MLS is Back Tournament. The favorites (see LAFC, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, or Atlanta United) did not perform well in this tournament or are in transition. Meanwhile, the parity in the league naturally brings more excitement as teams at the top do not always remain at the top. One season your team could be near the bottom of the conference but are capable of being a top team the following season. That is what makes it so fun to watch the MLS!
Both coaches have done a great job, making solid game plans and adjustments as needed. Oscar Pareja seems to be hitting his stride with Orlando where team fitness and possession-based soccer are high priorities. Meanwhile, Portland’s Giovanni Savarese keeps a tight team defense and oozes an infectious passion when on the touchline.
Leading his team through this Cinderella run is Orlando’s Nani who is coming off the heels of two world class goals in the semis. Orlando possesses several other key difference makers to look out for. Right back Ruan has been bombing up and down the wing at times showing complete dominance with his rapid pace and understanding of the game. Additionally, the Lions’ goalkeeper, Pedro Gallese, is capable of making incredible saves to keep his team in the game. Finally, Mauricio Pereyra pulls it all together for his team and will be the engine at attacking midfield.
Tactically, I don’t expect to see any major changes for either team. Orlando is going to try to possess the ball and rely on their superstar, Nani, who has experience on the biggest stage in the sport. No team has been able to stop him yet, but Portland will likely have a game plan in place to cover Nani in attack.
Much like Nani, the Argentinian attacking duo of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco for the Portland Timbers can be too much for the defense to handle. They are both capable of weaving from a wing to a central role, always finding the open man in space. American striker Jeremy Ebobisse is in form, scoring four goals in the tournament and gaining confidence for a Portland team that’s been looking to fill that void. The defensive block that Portland lines up with, anchored by a double pivot featuring MLS veteran Diego Charra and newcomer Eryk Williamson, is not easy for any team to break down. The DC United Academy product, Williamson, has been growing more comfortable in his role throughout this tournament. Not only is he capable of breaking up play in the midfield but going forward he sees the field well, which is so critical to this team’s success. While tactically this is no change, the counter is the most important part of Portland’s attack; however, preventing a quick transition of this quality is easier said than done.
So what’s at stake in the final? The MVP race is likely between Orlando’s Nani, an electric winger, and Portland’s Blanco who springs on the counter with deadly precision. However, the biggest on the line is a CONCACAF Champions League birth, and while it would be a huge challenge for either team on the field, it provides great exposure for the team and the MLS. For the Orlando City side, it would be their first ever trophy after a rough start, not making the playoffs in their first five seasons as a club. For either squad finishing off this run with a victory will certainly provide a boost going into a short break before the return of the MLS regular season. Until then, stay safe out there soccer fans!
MLS is Back Final Tuesday, August 11
Portland Timbers vs. Orlando City SC
8pm, ESPN/ESPN Deportes