In the end, the MLS is Back Tournament was almost exactly what the league wanted.
The tournament was not forced into cancelation despite two teams having to drop out before it began because of multiple positive COVID-19 cases. In fact, starting from July 12, the league recorded zero new cases inside its bubble among the thousands of tests conducted on players and staff.
Examining the on-field product, the stars — or those who showed up, given Carlos Vela’s absence — largely delivered. Nani, one of the highest profile players in MLS, played some of his best soccer since arriving in Orlando and helped the hosts make a surprise run to the final.
But thanks to center back Dario Župarić‘s timely finish, it was the Portland Timbers who won it all, defeating Orlando City 2-1. As a result, Portland not only takes home the trophy but gets a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Portland’s formula for victory was again proof that there is more than one way to produce a championship team. In three consecutive knockout round games, including the final, the Timbers possessed the ball for less than 40 percent of the time. Yet in each of those games, they were nearly equal to (or surpassed) their opponents in shots on goal.
Here are few other final takeaways from the tournament:
▪ Portland wins amid a backdrop of protests: Simultaneous to the Timbers’ victorious run in the tournament were the ongoing protests on the streets of Portland initially triggered by the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police in May.
This isn’t the first time that sports and politics have overlapped for the Timbers. A team supporters group, Timbers Army, was involved in fighting the league’s short-lived policy banning political signage in 2019.
And a day after the MLS is Back Tournament final, the Timbers Army’s merchandise van ended up in the middle of a protest and had its tires slashed by police.
Among players, Portland forward Jeremy Ebobisse was one of several in MLS to form Black Players for Change, a group working to end systemic racism.
Ebobisse, a 23-year-old who scored four goals for Portland in the tournament, was featured along with other players involved with BPC in a video released the day of the final discussing their stories in the context of racial injustice.
▪ Kelyn Rowe on the success of his role change: Due to the rules of the tournament — that points in group stage games would count toward the regular season — the Revolution emerged with a successful effort in Florida.
New England walked away with five points (a win and two draws). Aside from the injury to Carles Gil, one of the other major developments for New England was the reinvention of Kelyn Rowe as a central midfielder.
Rowe, 28, was originally drafted by the Revolution third overall in 2012. For the entirety of his career, he’s been an attacking midfielder. Yet with Bruce Arena stockpiling talented players in that position, Rowe admitted he was forced to rethink his role.
“I was second or third in the depth chart in those roles,” Rowe said in a recent interview, “so I changed my game to get on the field. I had multiple conversations with the coaching staff, and they saw that progression in training, what they wanted, what they needed from me to get on the field, and I did that. I was happy with the way I played in Orlando but there’s always going to be things I can do to get better.”
▪ The post-tournament landscape: The night after the Timbers won the final in Florida, FC Dallas and Nashville SC — the two teams who had to withdraw due to positive coronavirus tests — officially got MLS’s regular season back underway.
The game was played in Dallas, and actually included 2,912 fans in attendance. The socially-distanced in-stadium crowd represents a first for the league since the pandemic began, and also poses a few fundamental questions.
As MLS looks to its schedule outside of the Disney World bubble, concerns remain over how the league will operate while somehow preventing COVID-19 spread among players who will once again be traveling.