After five weeks of consistent drama from the group stage through the knockout rounds, the MLS is Back Tournament has come to an end, with the Portland Timbers crowned deserving champions of a most unusual competition. Barely 24 hours after the team lifted the silverware, the league’s regular season returns, as Nashville SC travels to FC Dallas (8 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).
But before we get caught up in Major League Soccer’s return to play in home markets, let’s take one last look at the Orlando, Florida, bubble. Here we grade every team and provide judgment on the best and worst of MLS is Back.
Most impressive team
Jeff Carlisle: Although Orlando City SC fell short in the final, the Lions took a quantum leap forward as a team. No one predicted that Orlando would have the kind of success it had at MLS is Back, but manager Oscar Pareja has his side organized and implemented a distinct attacking identity that is easy on the eyes. Both outside-backs pushed forward in a bid to create opportunities for Nani, Chris Mueller and Mauricio Pereyra. Defensively, the team has improved as well, though you can bet they’ll be looking at how they defend set pieces this week.
The big question from here: Can they sustain their success? In the short term, with upcoming games against Atlanta, Miami and Nashville, that seems possible. But there is now plenty of video on how Orlando operates. This team won’t be sneaking up on anyone.
Austin Lindberg: The Portland Timbers weren’t the flashiest team of the MLS is Back Tournament, and they weren’t the most exciting team of the competition, but they exemplified the grit and determination necessary for success in tournament play. In their seven games in the Orlando bubble, they won five times (only once by more than a goal), drew twice and compiled a goal differential of +6. When it mattered most, they did just enough to win, and that ethos yielded them silverware, a CONCACAF Champions League place and $300,000 in cold, hard cash.
Most disappointing team
Carlisle: Atlanta takes the cake in this category, but the Galaxy gave the Five Stripes a run for their money as the tournament’s worst. The offseason acquisition of Javier Hernandez was supposed to make fans forget — at least for a few seconds — about Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and expectations for the Galaxy are high every season. This time, the team’s weaknesses, especially on the defensive side of the ball, were laid bare in Orlando. The Galaxy conceded 10 goals in three games, including a humiliating six against rivals LAFC.
In Year Two of the Guillermo Barros Schelotto era, the Galaxy look like they’re going backward.
Lindberg: The fact that Atlanta United FC parted ways with Frank de Boer three days after the Five Stripes were eliminated from the MLS is Back Tournament tells you everything you need to know. The 2018 MLS Cup champions were without talisman Josef Martinez as he continues his recovery from a torn ACL, but not even such a significant loss can explain their attacking ineptitude and failure to score in any of their three group-stage losses.
Most impressive player
Carlisle: Sebastian Blanco is 32, but he remains one of the premier attackers in the league, and he reinforced that reputation during MLS is Back. He scored three goals and added five assists, which means he was involved in half of Portland’s goals in the tournament. He tallied at critical times as well, including in the quarterfinal and semifinal, and took on a central attacking role when asked, allowing Diego Valeri the opportunity to rest.
Portland next faces the challenge of replicating its tournament form in the regular season. As long as Blanco maintains this form, the Timbers can expect to reside among the league’s elite.
Lindberg: Diego Rossi was voted the Young Player of the Tournament in Orlando, but that’s selling his efforts short. His seven goals and three assists were the most in MLS is Back, with presumptive Player of the Tournament Blanco contributing three goals and five assists. Not only did the 22-year-old Uruguay youth international put up numbers that no one else in the bubble could match, but he also picked up the slack left by LAFC captain and reigning league MVP Carlos Vela, who remained with his pregnant wife in Los Angeles.
Last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners’ stumble at the quarterfinal stage against Orlando shouldn’t be held against Rossi and his outstanding efforts.
Most disappointing player
Carlisle: Is this label due in part to Gonzalo Martinez’s $14 million transfer fee, which Atlanta paid prior to the 2019 season? You bet. He’s a Designated Player and is expected to produce like one. During MLS is Back, he looked completely out of sorts, rarely looking dangerous as the Five Stripes failed to score a single goal. Yes, the absence of Martinez played a huge role in this, and ex-manager De Boer’s inability to coax more out of his side cost him his job. But Pity Martinez has rarely looked comfortable since arriving in Atlanta. We’ll see the extent to which interim manager Stephen Glass can get more out of the former South American Player of the Year.
Lindberg: Cristian Pavon scored half of the LA Galaxy‘s four goals in three games at MLS is Back, but both came from the penalty spot. Sure, the Galaxy were without Hernandez for the final two group-stage contests, and Jonathan dos Santos‘ absence was equally (if not more) disruptive as that of his El Tri teammate, but Pavon is a full Argentina international and a former Boca Juniors star.
For a team built around the contributions of its highest earners, the 24-year-old needs to contribute more than no goals from open play and no assists to make up for the rest of the side’s shortcomings.
Team grades: Eastern Conference
Atlanta United FC: F
Three games, three losses, no goals scored and a manager shown the door. This is a team whose expectations were sky-high during the Tata Martino era, so finishing as the worst group-stage performance of any club in the tournament is clearly falling short of those standards. It was apparent for some time that De Boer wasn’t working in Atlanta, and the Five Stripes’ lifeless play in Orlando proved to be the last straw.
Chicago Fire FC: C-
There has been so much change in Chicago since 2019 ended, and with so little time for all those new pieces to jell and Raphael Wicky’s ideas to be fully realized, inconsistent and disjointed performances were to be expected. New striker Robert Beric picked up a goal, but the Fire were held scoreless in their final two matches, showing little verve or ingenuity going forward.
Columbus Crew SC: B+
The Crew were the darlings of the group stage, as Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe orchestrated the destruction of “Hell is Real” rivals Cincinnati before dispatching perennial East contenders Atlanta and the Red Bulls and were unlucky to run into stingy Minnesota in the round of 16. With Zelarayan and Nagbe dictating play, Columbus is beginning to personify the character Caleb Porter has been working to instill for the past 18 months.
D.C. United: D+
This was always going to be a tricky year following the departures of Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta, but the new attacking pieces brought in to help offset the losses — Edison Flores and Julian Gressel — were fairly anonymous in Orlando, with 35-year-old new recruit Federico Higuain accounting for two of D.C.’s three goals in the bubble in just 51 minutes of action.
FC Cincinnati: B-
Considering where this team was heading into the tournament, MLS is Back was a success for FCC. New manager Jaap Stam stabilized the defense — no small feat given the rate it has shipped goals in MLS — and though the attack still requires plenty of work, at least the team has a foundation upon which to build.
Inter Miami CF: C-
At first glance, three losses with just two goals scored might seem like a pretty underwhelming return from the trip up Florida’s Turnpike, but consider that those losses came to Orlando (finalist), Philadelphia (semifinalist) and New York City FC (quarterfinalist), and there is some reason for optimism for the first club in MLS history to lose all five of its first games in league play.
Montreal Impact: C-
Where will the goals come from? Montreal played four games in Orlando and scored just two goals from open play, with Saphir Taider and Romell Quioto your goal scorers. Besides an emotional and exciting “Canadian Classique,” the Impact were stubborn in their defending, with plenty of numbers behind the ball, but unless the attacking pieces begin to produce, that isn’t a recipe for success looking ahead.
Nashville SC: Incomplete
The expansion franchise was dismissed from the tournament following a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests before the team could participate in any of the action.
The Revs’ lone win inside the bubble came with a fully fit Carles Gil leading them. Without him, they scored a single goal in 208 minutes of action, and they’re going to be without him for the next three-to-five months following surgery on his left Achilles. Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, who have demonstrated their abilities in their short time in Bruce Arena’s team, will need to find ways to get more involved in Gil’s absence.
New York City FC: C-
If not for a dodgy penalty called against Houston in the group-stage finale, NYCFC never would’ve made it to the round of 16, in which they efficiently and emphatically upset Toronto. Besides that contest, in which Ronny Deila’s side was devastating in transition, the Bronx side had a lot of the ball and little idea of what to do with it.
For a number of years, the Red Bulls were able to trade their biggest names while continuing to maintain their identity, the ethos that led them to a pair of Supporters’ Shields in the past five seasons. In Orlando, they looked like a team whose identity was selling its biggest names, as Kaku and the attack were largely kept quiet and Aaron Long and the defense were routinely beaten.
Orlando City SC: A
Few could’ve predicted Orlando’s Cinderella run to the MLS is Back Tournament final on the doorstep of Walt Disney World Resort. This is largely the same squad that slumped to 22nd in the league last season, yet Pareja had the Lions playing some of the most competitive, feisty and subsequently entertaining soccer of the competition. Imagine where this club is headed once Pareja is able to put his stamp on it.
Kacper Przybyłko’s lack of productivity is a concern, but Philadelphia boasted a depth in attack that would be the envy of much of the league, and Brenden Aaronson demonstrated why he’s attracting attention from several clubs in Europe. Andre Blake made more saves than anyone else in the tournament, which not only underlines his incredible shot-stopping ability, but also shines a light on a back line that gave up more than its fair share of chances.
Toronto FC: C+
Who would’ve thought that the loss of 36-year-old Drew Moor would have such a destabilizing effect on Toronto’s defense? Chris Mavinga, Omar Gonzalez and Laurent Ciman were routinely beaten for pace and pulled into areas in which they were disadvantaged by their lack of mobility, which was at its most evident in the loss to NYCFC. That’s a real concern going forward. But the emergence of Ayo Akinola, who scored five times in three starts, is perhaps exciting enough for the Reds to forget about their defensive frailties for now.
Team grades: Western Conference
The optimism created by two wins to start the season has been tempered following a three-and-out performance in Orlando. Manager Robin Fraser is still integrating attacking pieces in Younes Namli and Braian Galvan, but the performance of the defense — seven goals conceded in three games — is worrying as the regular season resumes.
Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman discuss FC Dallas’ plan to play in front of fans after missing MLS is Back.
FC Dallas: Incomplete
FC Dallas was the first club to be removed from the tournament because of a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests, but it wasn’t the only one, with Nashville following Dallas into quarantine in the ensuing days.
Houston Dynamo: C+
Blown leads against the Galaxy and LAFC doomed Houston’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages, but one can see glimpses of what manager Tab Ramos is trying to do with the Dynamo, using a mobile attack through Memo Rodriguez, Alberth Elis and Darwin Quintero. Game management remains an issue, but if Elis and Mauro Manotas can regain their scoring touch and if the defense gets sorted out, better days should be ahead for Houston.
Yes, LAFC were bounced in the quarterfinals by Orlando, but they also didn’t lose a game in regulation. Diego Rossi and Bradley Wright-Phillips both picked up the attacking slack in the absence of Vela, who opted to stay home to be with his pregnant wife. Questions abound about the team’s defending, especially in transition.
LA Galaxy: F
A solitary point from five games, including a 6-2 thrashing at the hands of rivals LAFC, doesn’t come close to meeting expectations for this group. Chicharito Hernandez got his first goal for the Galaxy against Portland but then departed because of an injury. The team still looks like it’s trying to figure out its attacking identify, and its defense remains in shambles. The return of Jonathan dos Santos will be a huge help, but we’ll see just how hot the seat is for manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Suffice it to say, the Loons weren’t sneaking up on anyone prior to this tournament, and they definitely won’t now after reaching the semifinals. The balance this team has achieved is impressive. If there’s one critique, it’s a lack of creative depth in attack, given the health issues of Kevin Molino. That explains the team’s continued pursuit of Boca Juniors playmaker Emanuel Reynoso.
Portland Timbers: A
Honor is due to the Timbers, who flew across the country and came away with the trophy. The Timbers’ defense can still look a bit suspect at times, but the emergence of Eryk Williamson alongside Diego Chara in midfield has helped overcome that weakness, and Jarek Niezgoda and Jeremy Ebobisse have been impressive up top, regardless of who is on the field. With Valeri and Blanco still doing the business, this team is impressive.
This is a team that looks to be treading water. Manager Freddy Juarez has some decent pieces with Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach, but it never seems to be quite enough for the team to join the league’s elite. Although the team looks solid enough defensively, the conundrum at center-forward — is it Sam Johnson, Kreilach or Douglas Martinez? — looks no closer to being answered.
The Quakes were certainly among the tournament’s more entertaining teams, with their “embrace chaos” approach. The quarterfinal defeat to Minnesota exposed some weaknesses, however, especially in goal and at center-back. You can bet that opponents will note those going forward.
The reigning MLS Cup champions look like they’re going through a transition phase, especially in terms of their center-backs. Until that is sorted out, it’s tough to see the Sounders returning to MLS Cup this season. That said, GM Garth Lagerwey has pulled off impactful midsummer signings before, and there is still talent in the side.
Sporting Kansas City came in as one of the favorites but exited in the quarterfinal stage, soundly beaten 3-1 by the Philadelphia Union. Defensively, SKC was kind of all over the place — sound one minute, brittle the next. The ghost of Ike Opara lives. Another concern: Kansas City is looking a bit old, and with regular-season games coming quickly now, that might be an issue going forward.
They won only one game out of four, but when you consider that they were missing arguably five starters who didn’t travel to Florida, in addition to the fact that they were down to their third-string keeper, reaching the knockout rounds counts as a positive. There’s still plenty of work for Marc Dos Santos, but progress was made.