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Six Degrees: Mission Accomplished

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Portland 2, Orlando 1

Portland Timbers v Orlando City SC: Championship - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Holy hell, there’s a ton to write about this week. Gotta review the Orlando game, gotta review the tournament as a whole, gotta preview the regular season re-starting, and somehow gotta squeeze it all into six degrees. Let’s get to work.


1) Going into the MLS is Back Tournament final, the scouting report on Orlando was “they really hope you try to press them. They want to break your heart playing through your stupid press.” Knowing all that, it makes sense that the Timbers didn’t do what Orlando wanted. They didn’t press, they sat back and said, “Come at us. Break us down.”

For the most part, Orlando couldn’t do it.

Yes, it made for a very one-sided game possession-wise. Yes, it wasn’t the most attractive soccer. But when we had a chance to counter, we went all-out. So many times, we’d get the ball and just sprint forward. I saw it a few times in the first half (particularly from right back Chris Duvall), but I saw it even more in the second half. The Timbers wanted to punish Orlando on the counter.

I’m kind of fascinated by this box score.

Despite a huge advantage in possession, Orlando only had one more shot than us (14-13), and even more amazing, had only one shot on goal, while we had six. Let’s show some appreciation for our counter attack, who crushed it, but perhaps even more appreciation for our defense, who stood firm for 90 minutes and gave Orlando very few quality opportunities.

Let’s also take a moment to appreciate our fullbacks. Orlando’s strength is on the wings and we pretty much took that part of the field away from them. Big ups to Chris Duvall shutting down Nani on the right, and Jorge Villafaña shutting down Mueller and Ruan on the left.

2) As good as our counterattack looked, it’s a bit ironic that neither of our two goals came on a counter. They both came from set pieces.

Our first goal came in the 27th minute and was fun because Camera 1 was lined up perfectly with Diego Valeri’s free kick. That seems like a small thing, but I really enjoyed how, from the instant the ball left his beautiful right foot, you could see the goal coming. You could watch center back Larrys Mabiala at the far end of our line, racing toward that back post, racing toward the spot where Valeri’s ball was going, hoping to beat his man there, hoping to beat the keeper there. Great drama, great goal, 1-0 Good Guys.

Orlando’s 39th minute goal was one of the few times when Orlando winger and Premier League veteran Nani looked good. For the most part, we were all up in his grill, all night long. Chris Duvall deserves most of the credit for this, but others helped, including Marvin Loria, Sebastian Blanco, Eryk Williamson, and Diego Chara. When the game plan is to shut down Nani, it’s all hands on deck.

But on the goal, he uses some really nice dribbling to get past Duvall, finds a sliver of space at the endline, and puts in a nice ball to Mauricio Pereyra. Eryk Williamson could have done better here, and ended up watching the goal while sitting on his ass. You win some, you lose some. Eryk still comes out of this tourney as one of the big winners.

Our second goal came from our second center back, which according to #StatMan Mike Donovan, has only happened once before.

The thing I like about this goal is how perfectly it pings around the box, from Eryk Williamson’s foot, to Jeremy Ebobisse’s foot, to Dario Zuparic’s foot, to the back of the net. When a ball’s pinging around that quickly, the goalkeeper truly doesn’t stand a chance.

I sort of want to call the last 10-15 minutes squeaky bum time, but was it? Yes, Orlando had a lot of possession, yes, they were desperately pushing for a goal, but who had the best chances late? That game seemed closer to finishing 3-1 than it did 2-2. And when we weren’t hitting them hard on the counter, we were taking the ball into the corner, killing clock like true professionals.

I wouldn’t describe this win as pretty. Instead, I’d call it professional. We knew what the opponent wanted to do and we stopped them from doing it. We got our goals, we killed the clock, and we raised the trophy. It was a professional win in a long string of professional wins. Over the course of these four-plus weeks, the Timbers were the tournament’s best team. They 100% deserved this championship.

3) Some random thoughts.

  • If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: if the Timbers are ever involved in a bench-clearing brawl, Sebastian Blanco will be the guy who starts it. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed his first half kerfuffle with Orlando coach Oscar Pareja. I loved the two jawing at each other. I loved the ref pulling Blanco aside for a lecture, even telling Diego Chara, essentially, “talk to your boy.” And I loved Blanco and Pareja hugging it out afterwards. First-class entertainment, start to finish. Never change, Seba. Never change.
  • Diego Valeri got kicked in the face. While standing up. How is that not a red card? How? I don’t know anything.

  • Even though it didn’t turn into a goal, I feel the need to show you this shot from Jeremy Ebobisse. He absolutely tattoos the ball. You could not ask for a cleaner strike. He just smashes it.

  • Winning this tournament means the Timbers will be in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League. The good news: CCL berth! We get to test our mettle against the big clubs of Mexico! The bad news: the tourney generally takes place in February, March, and April, which means, for the fourth straight year (every year of his tenure), Gio Savarase will have a weird start to the regular season. Stadium construction, then more stadium construction, then a global pandemic, and next year, CCL. Gotta feel for the guy.

4) Last week, I talked about how their wonderful play during this tournament has sorta made me fall in love with the Timbers all over again. Another thing I fell in love with? The tournament itself. I enjoyed the entire thing, start to finish. I loved the group stage games, I loved the knockout stage games. I loved that there was MLS soccer to watch every single night. I liked that every game was in the same place, so after awhile, I sorta became friends with that big yellow building in the background.

Perhaps most importantly, I liked how, as it progressed, the tourney felt more and more important. Yes, I know it’s the first time and probably the last time it’ll ever happen, but still, it felt big. It felt like a major cup. And why wouldn’t it? It’s the only soccer we’ve had this year and – if everything falls apart in the next month – it might be the only soccer we will have. So yeah, this feels like a real trophy, like something worth fighting for, something we can be proud to have won.

As fun as this tournament’s been, could we do it again? We could definitely do it as a preseason thing, either for the whole league, or with all the Eastern teams in Orlando and all the Western teams in San Diego or Las Vegas. You wouldn’t even have to change the name. It would be the MLS is Back tournament every year.

Alas, done that way, I don’t think it would feel nearly so important. In preseason, teams wouldn’t send out their best squad game after game. One, they’d be gaining fitness, and two, they’d be focused on opening week, not whether they won the tournament.

A midseason tournament might have more juice, but we’ve already got one of those. It’s called the US Open. Could we change the US Open so it has group stages and knockout stages? Would that make it more fun? I wrote a column a couple months ago imagining something called the DeMann Cup. Maybe we could incorporate some of those ideas.

All I know is, this tournament was hella fun and I’d love to see something like it again. What about you? Got any ideas on the future of this tournament or tournaments like it? Let me know down in comments.

5) Okay, that’s it for the MLS is Back Tournament. Now, believe it or not, the regular season is starting up again. At least, we think it is. The Timbers have six games scheduled. Maybe they’ll happen or maybe they’ll be canceled. Maybe the season will stop after those six games or maybe it will continue, we’ll have a bunch of game, there will be playoffs, and even an MLS Cup. The league is trying, that much we know. Whether they’ll succeed or not, at this point, all anyone can do is guess.

Let’s talk about this from two angles: the pandemic angle and the soccer angle.

From the pandemic angle, is this a good idea? As usual, I have absolutely no idea. I’m no doctor. I haven’t even had a COVID test. I know that a couple teams (Dallas and Nashville) showed up to the MLS is Back tournament with a bunch of sick players, but once they were sent home, the tourney’s bubble worked. So that’s cool.

But these upcoming regular season games, they’re not happening in a bubble. Yes, the teams are flying charter, and yes, they’ll try to come home immediately after the game, rather than stay in a hotel, and yes, they’ll be getting tested a lot. All this is good. Is it enough, or will players start getting (and spreading) COVID? I have no idea. I don’t think anyone can know until the season re-start really gets up and rolling.

One thing we could do is look at USL. They’ve started, you know. T2 has already had four games, three at home and one in Reno. How are those teams doing? I don’t keep up with T2 very closely (sorry, guys), but maybe some of you do. Are players getting sick like crazy? Are the rules they’re following mostly working? This might give us a sense of how things will go for MLS.

But again, I don’t know anything. All I can say is I’m concerned, but not terrified. How are you feeling about it? Concerned? Terrified? Completely unimpressed? Let me know down in comments.

6) Okay, that’s the COVID angle, now let’s talk soccer.

There will be a ton of games in a short amount of time – Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Sunday, Sunday – so expect massive squad rotation almost every single game. The good news? We suddenly have great depth, which we saw a bit of in the MLS is Back tourney. How would you feel about these two lineups alternating between games?


Clark

Duvall, Mabiala, Zuparic, Villafana

Williamson, Chara

Loria, Valeri, Blanco

Ebobisse


Attinela

Bonilla, Tuiloma, Cascante, Farfan

Paredes, Zambrano (Flores? Polo?)

Polo (Yimmi? Asprilla?), Conechny, Mora

Niezgoda


I would 100% go to war with these two lineups. While typing them out, the only times I got uncertain were with Yimmi Chara’s health (obviously), where to put Andy Polo (I like him farther back on the field, but after that Goal of the Tournament banger, Gio may want him in attack), who’s our backup #10 (I’m not super-sold on Tomas Conechny), and whether Felipe Mora can play on the wing (we could conceivably put him and Jaroslaw Niezgoda up top together).

But at the back? I have zero concerns about our second unit’s defense. All those guys have started games and done well. The Timbers could A team/B team these next few weeks and be absolutely fine.

Another option, of course, is mixing the lineups. But should we? Maybe going A-B-A-B will build cohesion within each lineup. Maybe that B team will get to know each other so well that they’ll become better than the sum of their parts. A second lineup that plays almost as well as the first group would be an incredibly valuable weapon during this tightly packed schedule.

What do you think? As always, let me know down in comments.

Oh, one final thing before I go: as you know, watching the MLS is Back tournament meant hearing fake crowd noise on FOX and no crowd noise on ESPN. Ready for a third option? Check out what the Timbers are doing. Color me intrigued.