Portland Timbers

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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.”

Preview: Philly v. Portland, Orlando v. MNUFC in MLS is Back semis

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Just as everyone no one expected, the Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, Orlando City SC and Minnesota United are the four teams still standing at the MLS is Back tournament, with the semifinals set to kick off Wednesday night.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

Philadelphia Union – Portland Timbers

Wednesday, 8 pm ET, FS1

How they got here

Philadelphia: Finished 2nd (7 points) in Group A, beat New England in R16, beat Sporting KC in QF
Portland: Finished 1st (7 points) in Group F, beat Cincinnati in R16, beat NYCFC in QF

Goalkeeper Andre Blake has been one of, if not the, brightest stars at the MLS is Back tournament, and while he’s not singlehandedly responsible for Jim Curtin’s side reaching the semis, he’s certainly had player the largest singular role of anyone in the league. Per MLSsoccer.com, Blake has effectively wiped away 1 goal per game over the course of five games. Sure, that’s a pretty small sample size, but we have years of examples of Blake making superhuman saves between the sticks, and yet he’s gone to an entirely different level this month. The other (continued) breakout star for Philadelphia is 19-year-old — and soon-to-be Europe-bound — midfielder Brenden Aaronson, who torched Sporting KC with perhaps the Assist of the Tournament in the quarterfinals after previously tallying two more assists in the group stage.

As for Portland, it’s all about defensive solidity for Giovanni Savarese’s side. The only team to score multiple goals against them at the MLS is Back tournament was Los Angeles FC, in the final group game. They’re still a mostly counter-attacking team as in previous seasons under Savarese, which will require the Union to push numbers forward and open themselves up to the counter — something they’re naturally inclined to do based on evidence of the tournament thus far.

Prediction: Philadelphia 1-2 Portland

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Orlando City SC – Minnesota United

Thursday, 8 pm ET, ESPN2

How they got here

Orlando: Finished 1st in Group A, beat Montreal in R16, beat LAFC in QF
Minnesota: Finished 2nd in Group D, beat Columbus in R16, beat San Jose in QF

Whether or not there are more games played in 2020 following the MLS is Back tournament, Oscar Pareja has to have already locked up the Coach of the Year award, right? Orlando have been a downright embarrassment for five seasons in MLS, then Pareja walks through the door and by his third competitive game in charge, they look like one of the most complete and well-oiled teams in the league. It’s not supposed to be like this, Orlando aren’t supposed to be good competent. The Lions have struck a perfect balance between maintaining a solid defensive shape and playing some expansive, beautiful soccer. That’s the dream for every team in the world, isn’t it? But the fact it’s happening in — and by the team from — Orlando, Fla.? Still doesn’t sit right.

Speaking of teams with a chameleon identity this summer, Minnesota United have logged just about every kind of result imaginable at this tournament. Grind-it-out 0-0 draw? Check. Dramatic, come-from-behind victory with two goals in stoppage time? Check. Surviving a penalty shootout after arguably their worst performance of the tournament? Check. Completely overwhelming and suffocating one of the tournament’s standout sides? Check. Adrian Heath’s side has typically been known for defending and timely set-piece acuity, but their total destruction of the San Jose Earthquakes in the quarterfinals was arguably the most impressive performance and result we’ve seen in Orlando.

Prediction: Orlando 0-1 Minnesota

MLS is Back semifinals set: Portland, Minnesota prevail (video)

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) Diego Valeri and Andy Polo came on in the second half to score key goals as the Portland Timbers defeated New York City FC 3-1 on Saturday night in the final quarterfinal match of the MLS is Back tournament.

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Sebastian Blanco also scored for the Timbers, who will face the Philadelphia Union in a Wednesday semifinal. The winner will face Minnesota United or Orlando City in the championship game on Aug. 11.

Jesus Medina had NYCFC’s lone goal on a penalty kick in the first half.

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Valeri didn’t start for the second time in five tournament games. The midfielder came on at the beginning of the second half and put the Timbers in the lead in the 65th minute when he split two NYCFC defenders off a pass by Jaroslaw Niezgoda and drilled a right footer that beat goalkeeper Sean Johnson for his second game-winning goal of the tournament.

Polo scored in the 76th minute, shortly after he entered the game. The midfielder lofted a beautiful shot from just outside the box that found its way into the top far corner.

NYCFC scored first in the 27th minute on Medina’s penalty kick after Portland’s Larrys Mabiala fouled Medina inside the box. The Timbers evened it 16 minutes later when Blanco intercepted a clearing pass and curled a shot into the net. NYCFC had a 10-9 advantage in shots. Johnson and Steve Clark each had two saves.

As for the other quarterfinal on Saturday, Robin Lod had a goal and an assist, Hassani Dotson had two assists and Minnesota United advanced in the MLS is Back tournament with a 4-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.

Lod and Jacori Hayes scored first-half goals 90 seconds apart to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead at halftime. Magnus Eriksson helped the Earthquakes get within a goal early in the second half on a penalty kick before Minnesota’s Luis Amarilla and Marlon Hairston scored to put it out of reach.

Minnesota United will face Orlando in Thursday’s semifinal, with the winner advancing to the championship game on Aug. 11.

Lod put Minnesota United on the board in the 20th minute when he had an open shot after San Jose goalkeeper Daniel Vega was caught out of position. Hayes quickly put the Loons up by two in the 21st minute when he put in a rebound after Vega deflected Hassani Dotson’s shot.

San Jose was awarded a penalty kick after a video review when it was determined that Hayes committed a hand ball inside the box. Eriksson converted on the penalty with his third goal of the tournament in the 50th minute.

Amarilla put Minnesota back up by two six minutes later with a left-footed finish just past the near post. Hairston closed the scoring in the 86th minute after getting a crossing pass from Dotson.

Minnesota United has won four straight against San Jose, outscoring them 15-4.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sport

Preview: LAFC favorites to reach MLS is Back semis; who joins them?

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Who will join the Philadelphia Union, who dismantled Sporting Kansas City in the first of four quarterfinal matchups on Thursday, in the semifinals of the MLS is Back tournament?

[ MORE: USMNT’s Weston McKennie remains keen on Premier League transfer ]

Orlando City SC v. Los Angeles FC — Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET

While it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty ahead of the weekend’s games, at least one clear favorite stands head and shoulders above the other six remaining sides: reigning Supporters’ Shield winners, LAFC — yes, even without reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela who opted out of the tournament to remain with his pregnant and to be present for the birth of their child.

After a bumpy start to the group stage, LAFC thrashed rivals LA Galaxy in group game no. 2; it was more of the same against reigning MLS Cup winners Seattle Sounders in the round of 16 — arguably the two most impressive performances of the tournament thus far. Diego Rossi has been happy to step in and shoulder the goal-scoring load with seven goals in four games — paving the way for rumors-a-plenty about European transfer interest — along with Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored a goal in each of the three group games.

As for Friday’s opponent and the surprise performers of the tournament thus far, Orlando City, under the guidance of newly installed head coach Oscar Pareja, are enjoying what is easily their best run of results since joining MLS in 2015, making this the most intriguing clash of the quarterfinals.

San Jose Earthquake v. Minnesota United — Saturday, 8 p.m. ET

Speaking of massively improved sides under a new head coach, Matias Almeyda got San Jose playing some high-quality soccer for much of 2019 before the wheels fell off late in the season. Almeyda is back for a second season in the Bay Area, and the ‘Quakes look to have gone to another level under the Argentine’s guidance. Winger Cristian Espinoza was a particularly bright spot last season and has only picked up where he left off with two goals and an assist in Orlando already. With Espinoza opposite Vako on the other side of the field, San Jose are getting significant contributions from the wings, which is a welcome change of pace after years of having to rely too heavily upon Chris Wondolowski and only Wondo.

With all of that said, Minnesota should prove to be a particularly tough matchup, given the degree to which they limit teams’ chances. Adrian Heath loves to play the “nobody believes in us, everybody thinks we’re terrible” card, but the rest of the league has taken notice of the Loons, who are yet to lose in this tournament. Having taken down early-days darlings Columbus Crew SC, the only side to win all three of their group games, in the round of 16 will ensure that Minnesota are no longer able to fly under anyone’s radar.

New York City FC v. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The final game of the weekend is just as intriguing as the first two, but for a different reason. NYCFC and Portland have each mucked and yucked their respective paths to the quarterfinals without ever once looking overly dominant or… good. NYCFC advanced from the group stage as third-place finishers with just three points, and though Portland won their group and finished ahead of LAFC, they never looked convincing — a pair of 2-1 victories over the Galaxy and Houston Dynamo is hardly something to brag about.

So, now they face one another — a near-mirror image of themselves, both in terms of their respective paths to this point and a very familiar tactical approach. Though each side has plenty of South American attacking talent, Ronny Deila and Giovanni Savarese have each favored a low-block defensive approach and hung their hopes on creating scoring chances on the counter. So, Sunday’s late game presents us with the age-old question: what happens when two teams who sit back and wait for their opponents to attack play one another? The result, as is often the case, could be a rather difficult watch.

MLS goalkeeper moonlights as children’s book author

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Jeff Attinella is unique in that he’s the only MLS goalkeeper who can also say he’s a children’s book author, a side job that has helped earn him the nickname “Dadtinella” from the Portland Timbers faithful.

He’s already written five books for kids, and has even launched a publishing company.

“I had the idea to write these books because I just love storytelling, in all forms,” he said. “It’s inspiring when people figure out a way to tell a story in their own unique way, or when people tell the story about how they got where they are — I just love storytelling.”

While Major League Soccer is on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, Attinella has been embracing his super dad role, in a major way. He and wife Kendall recently welcomed a son to their family.

Attinella’s foray into writing came shortly after the birth of his first child, daughter Remy Rose, in 2016. An avid sports fan, he started thinking up a Dr. Seuss-style story about the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.

“I was just fooling around on my iPhone in the notes section and came up with a nursery rhyme for my favorite sports team,” he said.

He showed his father-in-law his work and together the family founded a publishing company, It Had To Be Told. The end result was Attinella’s first book, “The Curse Ends: The Story of the 2016 Chicago Cubs.”

Since then, he’s added four more books: “Cleveland Wins a Championship: The story of the 2016 Cavaliers,” “Greatest Ever: The Story of a Coach, a Quarterback and a Comeback,” and “The Great Space Race: The Story of How America Put a Man on the Moon.” His latest is, “Roll Crimson Roll: The Story of College Football’s Greatest Dynasty.”

Attinella often takes his stories on the road to Portland schools. During social distancing for the coronavirus, he’s offering free downloads for parents who are suddenly homeschooling.

“I just thought that by making these books available to families – their kids might not be in school, or their families are really missing sports -hopefully it’s a good way to create something a little bit different, maybe spark up a conversation about their favorite sports moments or just give kids without school and kids without sports something to look to.”

Attinella, 30, came to the Timbers in 2017 and has made 46 appearances with the team. But last year his season ended early when he had surgery on his right shoulder. Steve Clark took over in goal in the meantime.

Recovery from surgery complete, Attinella was looking forward to getting back on the field this season. The Timbers had played just two games when the season was suspended by the league on March 12.

During the uncertainty that has followed, Attinella’s family enjoyed at least one bright spot: Connor Curtiss was born.

“We actually ended up having a very good experience, all things considered. But the worry and fear leading up to it was definitely real. That was tough to deal with, just a lot of the unknowns,” Attinella said. “You’re always scared when you’re having a newborn. But this was a very different type of scare.”

Attinella is not the first soccer player to venture into the children’s book market. Mia Hamm wrote “Winners Never Quit,” and Alex Morgan has a whole series of books called The Kicks. David Beckham even ventured into the Young Adult space with “Charlie Barker and the Secret of the Deep Dark Woods.”

Attinella’s focus for now is on entertaining his 3-year-old daughter while also remaining in isolation with a newborn. MLS has asked players to shelter in market until at least April 24. The targeted re-start date for the league is May 10, although that seems unrealistic at this point.

As for the future of his blossoming career as an author, Attinella is thinking big.

“Maybe it will happen when I’m done playing, maybe it’ll happen when I’m still playing, but my ultimate goal for the books is to have one for every sports team,” he said. “I just think that every fan base deserves something like this where they could pass the story down from generation to generation, giving parents and kids a way to share their passion for sports.”