MLS is Back post mortem

MLS is Back post-mortem: parting thoughts on Orlando

MLS is Back was successful as it was competitive, safe, healthy, and entertaining. In total there were 51 games, plenty of storylines, and one champion in Portland. ASN's Brian Sciaretta sums it all up with his thoughts. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
August 12, 2020
10:25 AM

THE MLS IS BACK tournament is now over and the Portland Timbers are the deserved winners after a 2-1 win over Orlando in the final. In the end, Portland simply had too many weapons that allowed it to adjust if someone was having a weak game. Meanwhile, Orlando was dramatically improved but still over-reliant on Nani – and it’s “Plan B” never materialized in the final.

I think most would agree that the tournament was overall successful. The non-participation of Dallas and Nashville saw it get off on the wrong foot but the continued health inside the bubble, the intensity, and the unpredictability made it better than expected. Sure, the play was quite rusty earlier in the group stages but it would have been unfair to expect anything else after such a long layoff.

There was gradual improvement as it went on and the interest and intensity were more than many were expecting for a one-off tournament. This became a tournament that the players really wanted to win.

Here are my overall thoughts on the tournament

Portland was built for this

Some teams are better are regular seasons and some teams are just playoff/knockout teams. This is true in most American sports and even in Europe for cup and playoff situations (like Fulham in the promotional playoffs or Seville in the Europa League). Portland is that team in MLS.

The backbone on Portland is experienced players who are naturally very competitive. Diego Valeri is one of the best players in the history of this league and he is skillful to the point where he has played for Argentina’s national team in his past. He knows this league well, the ongoing trends within the league at the moment, and what it takes to win. As journalist Arch Bell notes, Sebastian Blanco has played in the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana, MLS playoffs, MLS is Back, and now will get to play in the Concacaf Champions League. Diego Chara seems like a red card waiting to happen, but he manages to stay on the field and is one of the best defensive midfielders in the history of the league.

But those players are now well past 30. Portland now has some younger players like Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson to help carry the load. Both of those players are eligible for the U.S. U-23 national team. Ebobisse had four goals in this tournament and Williamson is only now finally starting to break in and he is playing a more withdrawn role than he did with the U.S. youth national teams. So far it is working and his numbers in the final were very steady.


Portland does not always play pretty but Gio Savarese has something that works right now. Eventually, players like Blanco, Chara, and Valeri will age out. Will they still be effective for the CONCACAF Champions League? Probably, but who knows. As of right now, they are in good shape.

Orlando is finally relevant

Oscar Pareja is still only in his first steps as the manager of Orlando City but the Colombian already has the team at its most relevant point in its history dating back to 2015. Pareja definitely did a lot for his club over the past month to give it both confidence and the respect of the Eastern Conference.

As mentioned, the club is still overly-reliant on Nani and when he isn’t playing well, the next best options still can’t carry the team. But the players are still buying into the system and there wasn’t a huge gap between Portland and Orlando in the finale. Orlando needs to be more methodical with the ball when its opponent is willing to cede possession.

Pareja needs time right now to add the remaining pieces and he will get that in Orlando. It seems like it could only be a matter of time before Orlando is a playoff team that teams do not want to face.


Familiar teams in trouble

MLS is still unpredictable but generally you have a pretty good idea of which teams are good and which teams are bad year in and year out.

MLS is Back revealed that some of the team which had been among the better teams in the league are in real trouble. Since the tournament, some of them have taken steps to address the problems the tournament revealed. Others remain in trouble heading into the next restart.

Atlanta United: Back in 2018, Atlanta United were the crown jewel of the league. But the general outflow of talent hasn’t matched the inflow and head coach Frank de Boer was not a good fit for a team that wants to play an open and free-flowing style. Since MLS is Back, de Boer parted ways with Atlanta and the next hire will be important to match the style of the players. Cubo Torres is a stop gap until Josef Martinez returns but the team badly needs to replace its solid role players from 2018.

New York Red Bulls: Two years removed from the Supporters Shield, the New York Red Bulls have likewise seen a steady talent drain. Head coach Jesse Marsch, Kemar Lawrence, and Tyler Adams left for Europe. Luis Robles and Bradley Wright-Phillips moved on. The Red Bulls have mostly tried to replace from within and it has gone poorly. The club has made a bunch of moves since MLS is Back but will it be enough.

LA Galaxy: The LA Galaxy are particularly troubling and its problems are known. Its defense is poor, it hasn’t drawn from its academy well, and it doesn’t have enough resources to provide service to Chicharito. The team has been poor for some time but Zaltan simply covered it up. Guillermo Barros Schelotto doesn’t seem to be connecting with his players and players like Pavon and Dos Santos are not playing at top DP-level players. Unlike the other teams on this list, the Galaxy don’t have quick-fixes.

Seattle Sounders: The reigning champs have had a rocky start to 2020. The ugly loss in the CONCACAF Champions League has now been followed by a rather lackluster MLS is Back tournament. Yes, Seattle has started poorly before but it can’t keep playing that game.


Teams on the rise

I think MLS is Back helped introduce the fact that different teams are ready to compete in 2020 and into 2021.

Philadelphia Union: The Union finally won their first playoff round in 2019 and came into 2020 looking sharp. In Orlando, Philadelphia looked like a team that can certainly win the Eastern Conference this year or next. Jim Curtin has built a nice and steady team. Philadelphia needs to be prepared, if Aaronson or McKenzie move to Europe.

Orlando City: Certainly, Orlando City helped itself tremendously at this tournament. This is the most relevant the team has every been and you hope its fanbase begins to reembrace this team. Yes, it is still overdependent on Nani but Pareja has a system and a style which the players believe in. It needs more impact players but it has a great supporting cast.

Inter Miami and Cincinnati

Credit to Jaap Stam. After Cincinnati was blown out in its opener, it found ways to earn narrow wins over Atlanta and the Red Bulls. The team is still a long-term project but perhaps it founds its right coach.

Inter Miami left the tournament losing all three games and has lost its first five games. It is learning some hard lessons with regards to expansion and it looks like Cincinnati in 2019. Both of these teams show the need for some known role players to go along with the high-priced designated players.

David Beckham felt unlucky after all he went through just to start his team. But now he is probably feeling lucky he gets to have a 2020 soft-opening away from its fans. MLS has become a league where expectations are higher for expansions clubs and Miami is a market that needs winner to have fans.


Young players stepped up

This tournament was refreshing in a way when looking at how many young players took advantage of the opportunities to be difference makers. It wasn’t just young designated players like Diego Rossi who won the Golden Ball for the tournament.

Here is just a brief list of some domestic young players who didn’t just play, but were contributing in very meaningful ways on the field.

Ayo Akinola: the U.S. U-23 eligible forward had five goals in the group stages before bowing out with a strained hamstring. But his physicality and quality finishing should give him looks internationally, at least at the U-23 level.

Brenden Aaronson: The number 10 for Philadelphia is still a teenager but showed he can pull the offensive strings for one of the best teams in the East. Philadelphia should contend under Aaronson, although a move to Germany could be in the cards.

Eryk Williamson: The Portland midfielder learned a lot about contributing to a winning team in Orlando and it is a relief that Portland is finally playing him.

Jeremy Ebobisse: The Portland forward had four goals and helped his team to the title. He deserves the starting job in Portland and possibly with the U.S. U-23 team as well.  He can score, hold the ball up, and is quite the competitor.

Aboubacar Keita: With an up and down U-20 World Cup in 2019, Keita is now in a professional environment where he is improving at a very quick rate. A central defender, Keita has the physical size and strength for the modern game but now his play with the ball looks better. Columbus is quickly improving team and Keita is in a good spot to contribute to a team that can contend in the East.

James Sands: the New York City FC defensive midfielder/central defender has proven to be an effective player in the Big Apple and he was one of his team’s better players in Orlando. Since his days as a U-17 player, Sands has been overlooked at the U-20 and U-23 levels for the United States. Can he get another look with the U-23s with that cycle pushed out another year?

Frankie Amaya: The feisty Cincinnati midfielder is a tough competitor on a team that always looks like it can be steamrolled in this league. Aside from the first game, Cincinnati scrapped by into the knockouts where it only narrowly lost. Amaya showed a lot of useful traits. He was a fighter on the field, completed a huge percentage of his passes, and scored a wondergoal against Atlanta.

Kyle Duncan: The Red Bull right back was a rare bright spot in a tournament that was tough for RBNY. The homegrown was solid on both sides of the ball and is someone the club should build around.

Aaron Herrera: Although not much talked about, Herrera has quietly improved at a dramatic rate for Real Salt Lake. As a right back who can cover on the left, his passing range impressed during the group stages of the tournament.

Mark McKenzie: As one of the two young players which are at the core of Philadelphia, McKenzie helped get the Union into the semifinal and did not hurt his case for a move to Germany.

Thomas Hasal: One of the most feel-good stories of the tournament was Vancouver goalkeeper Thomas Hasal, 21, who was the emergency third-string keeper but who looked the part and nearly helped Vancouver to defeat Sporting Kansas City after some thrilling saves – including in the shootout. It will be interesting where the young Canadian goalkeeper goes from here.

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