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Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Portland beats Orlando to win MLS is Back championship

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Soaked in sweat and doused in water, the Portland Timbers hoisted the MLS is Back trophy at midfield and then headed toward a giant TV screen filled with fans cheering from afar.

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It was a huge Zoom party. It might just be the way to celebrate championships in 2020.

Dario Zuparic’s first goal of the season gave Portland a 2-1 victory against Orlando in Major League Soccer’s return tournament finale Tuesday night, capping a month-long event that showed sports can be played safely inside a bubble.

“I always think the more difficult the fight is the more beautiful the victory is at the end,” said Portland’s Larrys Mabiala, who scored the game’s first goal.

Orlando was slow to react to Diego Valeri’s corner kick in the 66th minute, allowing Eryk Williamson to collect the ball, change direction and take a shot that Jeremy Ebobisse deflected to Zuparic’s feet. Zuparic didn’t have to do much to get it by Pedro “The Octopus” Gallese, who had made two fantastic saves in the lead-up to the corner kick.

The goal started the celebration on Portland’s sideline and sent Orlando into panic mode. The Lions had a chance in the closing minutes, but failed to get the equalizer.

“It’s a group of players in a lot of pain right now,” Orlando coach Oscar Pareja said. “Things didn’t bounce our way. We made a couple of mistakes.”

The Timbers, who spent 39 days in the MLS bubble and remained on West Coast time, hugged and danced after the final whistle. They raised the silver trophy while hooting and hollering. But the lasting image will be players and coaches waving at a camera and reaching hundreds back home.

It ended a wild month for the MLS, which managed to play 51 matches in 45 days at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World.

No family. No friends. No fans.

But it was by most accounts a rousing success, especially considering how it started. FC Dallas and Nashville were forced to withdraw days before the start because of positive coronavirus tests.

Players, coaches and support personnel were tested regularly inside the MLS bubble. The league reported just two positives out of nearly 35,000 tests following the initial setbacks that threatened to derail a tournament that came with a $1.1 million purse.

“We just told ourselves we need to make it worth it,” Mabiala said, adding that his son has been calling, crying and clamoring for him to come home in recent days.

Portland will get $328,000 in prize money to split. The Timbers also earned a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, their first since 2016.

Orlando settled for $150,000 to share.

Orlando’s appearance in the finale was a surprise considering the team finished 11th out of 12 in the East last season and fired coach James O’Connor. Pareja took over in 2020 and made an immediate impact.

Pareja convinced his players, including star Nani, to settle into the bubble several days early. They won the tournament opener, a group-stage victory against Miami, and ended up spending nearly seven weeks quarantined in the bubble.

Portland’s experience – the Timbers won the MLS title in 2015 and were runners-up two years ago – showed in the finale.

Portland’s first shot on goal found the back of the net. Valeri delivered a perfectly placed free kick into the box that Mabiala headed past Gallese in the 27th minute. It was Valeri’s 93rd assist with the Timbers.

But considering Portland has managed just three clean sheets in its last 23 matches, it was no surprise to see a defensive breakdown just a few minutes later.

Nani worked the ball down the left side following a turnover and created enough room to get a crosser into the box. Mauricio Pereyra got a foot on the ball and then took advantage of a fallen defender to tie the match.

The equalizer came shortly after Portland’s Sebastian Blanco exchanged words with Pareja during a hydration break. Referees stepped between them, and they later apologized and hugged it out.

The league resumes its regular season Wednesday night with Dallas playing at Nashville. The league’s 26 teams will play 18 games apiece. A majority of the games will be played without fans because of local regulations. Teams will be subject to a rigorous testing protocol and will use charter flights or buses to limit outside contact.

“We have to see if it works,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “If it does, we go through with it. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to adjust.”

Orlando City hoping to secure prolific scorer from Pareja’s old club

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Orlando City is getting close to signing a veteran striker in the form of Argentine scorer German Cano, according to manager Oscar Pareja.

Cano has spent the last two seasons lighting up the scoreboard for longtime club Independiente Medellin, where he’s scored 94 times in 134 games in two stints (2012-14 and 2018-19).

[ MORE: MLS announces 2020 schedule ]

Cano will be 32 at the start of the season, and recorded 19 goals and six assists in parts of four seasons in Liga MX.

So there’s no guarantee he’ll walk into MLS and be Orlando’s missing striker, but Pareja will have a keen understanding of Cano due to their shared lineage at Independiente. Pareja was also born in Medellin.

Can he combine with Nani and Dom Dwyer to light up the scoreboard? Pareja has organized the right pieces at two different MLS clubs, but doing it in Orlando would be his biggest achievement.

Orlando City tabs Pareja as new coach

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Oscar Pareja is returning to Major League Soccer for a third stint.

The former Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas coach will now be plying his trade for Orlando City SC, leading Nani and Dom Dwyer as the fourth full-time coach in six MLS seasons.

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A longtime Dallas player and assistant, Pareja led the Rapids to the playoffs in 2013 before leaving for the head job at his former club.

FCD won the Supporters’ Shield and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup under his watch before he left for Club Tijuana in 2018, where he went 23W-4D-21L.

Here’s Pareja, via OrlandoCitySC.com:

“The future of this Club is extremely bright, with so many opportunities to grow and succeed at all levels of the Club – from the new training facility to the world-class stadium and from the Development Academy all the way to the MLS side. Orlando is an incredible soccer city, with an especially passionate and dedicated fan base. I can’t wait to get started.”

Pareja should be a huge asset in developing the club’s top young talents into professionals, but he’s got a lot of work to do in building a competitive roster. Orlando finished eight points out of the playoffs in a league in which making the playoffs isn’t that difficult of a proposition.

MLS weekend preview: Quakes look to stay alive, Revs one win away from playoffs

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It’s the penultimate weekend of MLS regular season, and the playoff picture is nowhere near being completed, especially in the Western Conference. With two Sundays to go, four teams remain in the hunt for the final spot in the East. In the West, the fifth, sixth and seventh spots are yet to be decided.

Here’s a quick preview of each match being played this Sunday:

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders: Will the San Jose Earthquakes’ miraculous turnaround under Matias Almeyda go the next level with the clinching of a playoff spot? Only a point away from surpassing the red line, San Jose are statistically forced to win against a playoff-destined Seattle Sounders, who look to move as high as second in the Western Conference with two games to play, on Sunday if they want to make an already laudable reconfiguration into a generational one. With the return of Almeyda, Chris Wondolowski and Cristian Espinoza, the Quakes’ chances will be as good as they’ll get at this point of the season: a coin flip.

New England Revolution vs. NYCFC:  NYCFC’s visit to Gillette Stadium is the Eastern Conference’s biggest game of the weekend. Domenec Torrent’s side are in a comfortable position – six points clear of second place Philadelphia Union. The New England Revolution, however, are a win away from clinching a playoff berth. Then again, with Bruce Arena leading the Revs, one can assume that the home team will sneak into the postseason.

Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers: After a rocky start to their season, the Portland Timbers are in the driver’s seat to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Timbers’ followers, clinching playoffs is not the topic of interests. After six years, Diego Valeri is reportedly playing his final days in Rose City, as contract talks between both parties have hit a roadblocks. The question now becomes: will Valeri’s  uncertain future affect the Timbers’ on the field starting this Sunday against an eliminated Sporting KC?

Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC: After 13 years, countless goals and memories, the Chicago Fire say goodbye to Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire, who are relocating to Soldier Field next season in the hopes of drawing interest from proper Chicago’s large soccer fanbase, are not entirely out of the playoff race either. With a loss from the Revs and win at home, Veljko Paunovic and company would be only a point removed from New England. Chicago’s latest result – a scoreless draw against a poor Cincinnati – doesn’t give the impression that they’ll be able to edge a balanced Toronto, who are in the postseason yet again.

Real Salt Lake vs. Houston Dynamo: Real Salt Lake continue to produce, despite their internal turmoil. On Friday, the club parted ways with general manager Craig Waibel in the wake of a lawsuit raised by former coach Mike Petke, who made a reference that Waibel was critical of owner Dell Loy Hansen and said he was resigning from his position at the end of the season. Recent history indicates the team will respond positively to such self-inflicted roadblocks. But with only a foot across the red line, it will be interesting to see how they show up against a crumbling Houston Dynamo.

Colorado Rapids vs. FC Dallas: Robin Fraser’s new-look Colorado Rapids aren’t out yet, but their playoff chances hang on by a thread, if that. On the other side, FC Dallas – a point above San Jose – look to win out and, as a result, sneak into the playoffs. They’ll have to do so against a new Rapids scheme in which attackers and defenders alike are scoring. No easy task for a Dallas team that has allowed five goals in their last three games.

FC Cincinnati vs. Orlando City: While Carlos Vela actively looks to break the league record for the most scored goals in a season, FC Cincinnati hopes not to be the team to allow the most goals in a single season. They’re one away from doing so. With Orlando City, who need to win out in order to have any last-minute chances to qualify, Ron Jans’ side’s probabilities are slim.

Montreal Impact vs. Atlanta United: Montreal Impact are one of the four teams fighting for a spot in the Eastern Conference’s big party. With midweek Canadian Championship celebrations still fresh, the Impact may have plenty of inspiration to pick up the reaming six points (or not). Jose Martinez-less Atlanta United, on the other hand, look to bounce back from a crushing loss to NYCFC that cost them the second spot in the East.

Columbus Crew vs. Philadelphia Union: Fresh off a win against the Quakes, Jim Curtin and company look to separate themselves from Atlanta United, and seal second place in the East. The Crew, who have proven to be a threat time and time again this season, will put up a fight.

Minnesota United vs. LAFC: With a Supporters’ Shield to point towards, LAFC have every reason to take things slow until the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. That said, given that Vela is one goal away from tying Martinez’s league record, though, the Black-and-Gold will likely continue moving forward at full speed until the Mexican writes his name in the record book. If that holds true, LAFC and second place Minnesota United will be a must-watch.

New York Red Bulls vs. D.C. United:  A rivalry with two games left in the regular season is never a bad thing, especially when both teams are looking to climb the standings before the playoffs. To add to a thick plot, both teams are already in good form, and only a point apart in the Eastern Conference standings.

LA Galaxy vs. Vancouver Whitecaps: Just a couple of months ago, the LA Galaxy were in serious trouble of making the playoffs. But with the improvement of their backline and the non-stop dominating play from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Galaxy now find themselves playoff bound. It’s the type of transformation the Whitecaps were looking for but were never able to accomplish in Marc Dos Santos’ first year at the helm. As expected, the home side will look to exploit that and aim for the West’s second spot.

Rossi salvages point for Vela-less LAFC in Orlando (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less):  With serious possibilities of losing back-to-back games without the league’s best player in Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi stepped up for LAFC. The Uruguayan’s goal in the 78th minute – his 15th of the season – earned the Supporters’ Shield favorites a point in their visit to Exploria Stadium on Saturday night. Despite dealing with injuries and international absences, Rossi’s impact was a quick reminder of the type of firepower that Michael Bradley possesses. Orlando City, playing inspired in front of their home crowd with hopes of making playoffs intact, also tested their all-around depth through the legs of what seemed like vintage Luis Nani. LAFC, however, didn’t fold in front of the Portuguese, proving to be the better team when defending and in moving the ball forward. Four points out of playoffs and with four games to play, Orlando’s playoffs hopes hang by a thread, while LAFC remain on track to lift silverware sooner rather than later.

Three moments that mattered

13′ — Vintage Nani levels the game  — We’ve seen this before from the 32-year-old.

20′ —  Michel finishes a lovely sequence — A beautiful goal.

78′ — Rossi earns LAFC a point — There are reasons why European teams are closely monitoring the Uruguayan.

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Man of the match: Luis Nani

Goalscorers: Perez (12′), Nani (13′), Michel (20′), Rossi (78′)