A new challenge emerges for Timbers in MLSiBT final

by Kevin Nesgoda

Nani warms up for Fenerbahce in 2015.   Image by Football.ua via    Wikimedia Commons    (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nani warms up for Fenerbahce in 2015.

Image by Football.ua via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Against many odds, the Portland Timbers have reached the MLS is Back Tournament Final. It’s safe to say the Timbers have been underdogs in almost every match—excluding FC Cincinnati in the round of 16 and maybe Houston in the group stage.

Against probably more odds, tournament hosts Orlando City SC will be the Timbers’ opponents. The Lions reached the final after beating Montréal in the round of 16, LAFC in the quarterfinals, and Minnesota United in the semis.

An underdog mentality has fueled the Timbers for most of their history in Major League Soccer—it’s how they won MLS Cup 2015, it’s how they reached MLS Cup 2018, and it bleeds into their overall identity of play.

Under Giovanni Savarese, the Timbers are widely known as a counterattacking side. This is a departure from Caleb Porter’s possession-oriented attacking that brought the club success from 2013 to 2017.

In this MLS is Back Tournament, Portland have faced plenty of ball-controlling teams (LAFC, NYCFC, Philadelphia) and a couple more reluctant sides (Houston, Cincinnati). Orlando is different. Much like the Timbers, they create goals through ruthless counters, and are willing to try and pass through any press.

Let’s look at this match from a general angle, though: Orlando have never been good in MLS. Ever. In their five-to-six-year MLS history, they’ve never made the playoffs. Not once. It’s safe to say their crowning achievement as a franchise has been either building Exploria Stadium or signing Nani.

This could be Orlando’s biggest moment as a club, and it wouldn’t mean merely as much for Portland in the overall context of MLS success. However, these two differences won’t be seen on the field. Both teams want to win, and the effort of the players will reflect this. I don’t think one side will be more or less “motivated” than the other.

Quick Tactical Preview

Portland did not perform well against the only other true underdogs they’ve faced in this tournament (Cincy). This was largely due to the “park the bus” style of play used by Jaap Stam’s side, but Orlando won’t do the same. Expect possession to go both ways, with Portland and Orlando both sitting in mid-to-low blocks defensively. This may be a fun watch for neutrals.


As I said before the tournament started, the structure of this tournament favors Portland’s style of play, and here they are in the final. As for the final itself, Timbers can and should win this match. I think the result will come down to who makes less defensive mistakes and who is able to capitalize on said mistakes.

So essentially, again, why not us? My prediction is 2-0 Timbers, with a solid defensive performance and an unexpected offensive contributor—I think one of our defenders scores off a set piece.

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