Disney World likes to market itself as the most magical place on earth, and luckily for the Portland Timbers, they’ve been able to harness enough of that magic to win the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, Florida.
The Timbers beat Orlando City 2-1 in the final of the MLS is Back competition Tuesday night, capping off a Cinderella run through an unusual one-off tournament hosted in a “bubble” at Disney World where teams could avoid COVID-19.
As the last team standing, the Timbers have earned a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League and can try for a spot to represent the region in FIFA’s Club World Cup.
“You know, I always think that the more difficult the fight is and the more beautiful the victory is,” said defender Larrys Mabiala, one of the Timbers’ goal-scorers in the final. “At the end, we’ve been through many difficult games, especially the last two we had to play against the Orlando and Philadelphia. They tested us very hard but the fact that we’ve been through this opposition showed we have a lot of personality and character.”
Dario Zuparic, the center back who signed with the Timbers ahead of the 2020 season, picked a fine moment to score his first goal in MLS, notching the crucial game-winner. Diego Valeri served in a corner kick in the 66th minute, which Eryk Williamson settled and fired from inside the box. His shot deflected off Jeremy Ebobisse’s foot, and Zuparic redirected the ball into goal.
The Timbers opened scoring in the 27th minute on a set piece. Valeri fired an in-swinging free kick into the box and Larrys Mabiala did well to muscle off his defender, João Moutinho, and nod the ball into goal. It’s Mabiala’s eighth career goal for the Timbers.
Orlando equalized 12 minutes later. Orlando’s most influential player of the tournament, Nani, dribbled up the endline and fired a low cross to Mauricio Pereyra at the top of the 6-yard box. Williamson missed his tackle and Pereyra did well to fire past goalkeeper Steve Clark.
The MLS is Back tournament has been hosted in Orlando, where teams were sequestered at Disney World resorts and played games in empty stadiums at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The tournament was a grueling gauntlet, where teams played every few days in humid Florida heat.
The Timbers were not favorites, with pundits and scientific models giving them low odds to reach the end. After the Timbers clinched their spot in the final, coach Giovanni Savarese told The Oregonian/OregonLive: “We don’t play for the commentators, we don’t play for the writers.”
In addition to a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, players were also enticed by up to $1.1 million in prize money, including a guaranteed $300,000 the Timbers have won for being the last team standing.
But launching the tournament amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy.
Early negotiations between the MLS players union and the league turned acrimonious, with the league threatening a lockout. The two sides…