After two fairly middling seasons, the Portland Timbers have gone undefeated in the MLS is Back Tournament, held in the bubble of the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World, and will meet pseudo-home team Orlando City in the final at 5:30 p.m. tonight.
In the cup-style tournament’s group play stage—games that count toward regular season standings—the Timbers bested LA Galaxy and Houston and tied tournament favorites LAFC in group play. They squeaked through the round of 16 against FC Cincinnati on penalties after a keeper error tied the game (this summer’s women’s and men’s soccer tournaments have not included overtime periods, so games tied after 90 minutes have gone straight to a penalty shootout) and dispatched NYCFC and Philadelphia Union with a goal per game from Sebastián Blanco, plus one apiece from Diego Valeri, Andy Polo, and Jeremy Ebobisse. Orlando has its share of momentum coming into the final, too, having become the tournament’s giant slayers when they emerged from a quarterfinal penalty shootout with LAFC and building on a stunning brace from Nani, the Portugal star who played much of his career with Manchester United, in its semifinal against Minnesota.
After the MLS is Back Tournament concludes tonight, the MLS will be back next week, with plans to resume its regular season August 20 in home stadiums, complete with frequent COVID testing for players, coaches, and staff, and a multiphase schedule that aims to reduce overall travel and address complications for Canadian teams. The presence of fans will depend on local factors, and Providence Park will not be hosting the Timbers Army anytime soon. The Timbers have six games scheduled so far, the first a fanless rivalry game against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park on August 23. That means no matter what happens in the MLS is Back final, there will more opportunities to see double Charas on the field and, of course, to generate gifs of manager Gio Savarese.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said in Zoom press conference Saturday that the league has learned a lot from its bubble tournament, including some practices that might continue as games are held in empty stadiums. “Converting literally youth soccer fields into virtual stadiums,” he said of the ESPN Wide World of Sports venue, meant handling more game feeds, more cameras, more embedded microphones, more drones, and more virtual signage that “allowed us to deliver our commitments to our national sponsors and our local sponsors ... to capture some of that revenue.” The upcoming schedule will rely on chartered flights and buses, with most visiting teams arriving in a host city on match day and leaving immediately after the game.
“The alternative is to make the decision to not go forward and operate out of fear, as opposed to operating out of strength and out of confidence,” Garber said, acknowledging they may need to accommodate changes, but that the league has faith in “what our players do and our staff do away from their playing field, away from their facilities,” including wearing masks, distancing, practicing good hygiene, and avoiding “situations where the risk of contracting the disease is heightened.”
Two MLS teams, Dallas and Nashville, were excluded from the tournament after positive COVID tests, but the remaining 24 teams will have played 51 games in 35 days. Garber reported only two positive tests of more than 35,000 given to the 700 players and 400 to 500 staff in the Orlando bubble. MLS was the second US team major league to return to play with a bubble tournament, preceded by the NWSL, which played June 27 to July 26. One team was excluded, but the women’s league’s Utah bubble remained intact and COVID-free for the eight teams in its Challenge Cup, the trophy (and lot of locker room lubrication from sponsor Budweiser) going to the Houston Dash. (The Portland Thorns, repeating the 2019 postseason, lost in the semis.) The WNBA began its 2020 season on July 24 in its #Wubble in Bradenton, Florida, near Sarasota, and while Portland might not have a WNBA team we can root for our neighbors the Seattle Storm (now in year 19 of the Sue Bird Era), pray for University of Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu’s sprained ankle while she sits on the sidelines with the New York Liberty, or get deep in Georgia politics with players’ Vote Warnock T-shirts that throw shade on an Atlanta Dream co-owner who has spoken out against the Black Lives Matter movement. The NBA resumed its 2019–20 season at Disney World on July 30, blessing Rip City with just a little more Dame Time. Following a very rocky start to its 2020 season, Major League Baseball now appears to be considering a bubble of its own.