The Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union didn’t come into the MLS is Back Tournament considered favorites to win the competition, but as they prepare for Wednesday’s semifinal showdown, they both have the look of potential champions.
Led by Sebastian Blanco, the Timbers won arguably the toughest group in the field, and followed that up with an impressive win against New York City FC. The Philadelphia Union have benefited from a standout tournament from goalkeeper Andre Blake, but have seen multiple players step on their undefeated run to the semifinals.
“We’ve had 1-0 games where Andre has been big, we’ve had games where our midfield was dominant and led to quick transitions and goals,” Union coach Jim Curtin said Monday. “We’ve had days where Sergio (Santos) gets two goals and carries us but collectively it’s a good thing that we are finding ways to win when everyone isn’t perfect.
“It’s a step forward that we can win in different ways but we all know that we are at our best when Kacper (Przybylko) is at his best and I’m confident that will come back into form. He’s been a big scorer for us in many instances and we have to find ways to put him on the ball more and in better parts of the field. With his work rate and his abilities to make plays for will come through in a big game like Portland.”
The Eastern Conference side rolled past Sporting Kansas City in the quarterfinals with Santos headlining the long list of impressive performers. Santos registered a two-goal, one assist performance leading the Union attack, while Brenden Aaronson, Jose Martinez, and Andre Blake all put in strong shifts at their positions.
Captain Alejandro Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro round out the midfield, which has gotten strong performances from each player at different points in the tournament. Kai Wagner and Ray Gaddis remain the starting fullbacks in Curtin’s 4-4-2 diamond formation while Jack Elliott and Mark McKenzie have been excellent.
It’s been a strong and impressive run for the Union, who didn’t start the 2020 MLS season in particularly good fashion after only one point from two games. Since then, the team has posted a 4-0-1 record, which included wins over New York City FC, Sporting Kansas City, and the New England Revolution. Most importantly, the Union have improved with every game and will have to be at their best against a stingy Timbers side.
“Our players have improved drastically over the years on the field,” Curtin said. “We’ve gotten some results in this competition. We are improving. We’ve played good in some big games, some elimination games in Orlando, which is a big step forward for our club. I’m proud of the work everybody has done, but at the same time, we have a lot of work to still do. We’re starting to be talked about in that upper echelon of teams, but now the objective is to win a competition, to win these final two games and lift a trophy.”
Portland has posted a 3-0-2 record at MLS is Back, earning victories over the L.A. Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and most recently NYCFC. No matter who has stepped into the starting lineup or appeared off the bench, they’ve made sure to deliver for the Western Conference side who has scored two goals or more in four of its five matches.
Jeremy Ebobisse and Jaroslaw Niezgoda have combined for five goals between them leading Portland’s attack while Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco remain key pieces to a talented midfield bunch. Diego Chara is a physical piece of the midfield, providing help to the backline led by Larrys Mabiala.
“We feel great,” Savarese said. “We feel content knowing that we are developing and moving on in this tournament. Now we have a big game in the semifinals against a good team in Philadelphia who have done well this tournament to get to this point. So overall, we will be ready for a tough test from them.”
“Our latest performance showed the confidence in the group to remain together even though we fell down early. It shows the work that everyone has been putting in to remain calm and not get in over their heads when things could get tough. Everyone is believing in what we have here and we need more of that to advance in this competition.”
Portland historically own the rivalry with the Union, winning six of the last 10 meetings in league play including four-in-a-row. With both teams coming in on good form though, anything can happen especially with a spot in the final at stake and the chance of earning $1.1 million prize money and a 2021 Concacaf Champions League berth.
The winners will meet the winner of Thursday’s semifinal between Orlando City and Minnesota United in the MLS is Back Tournament Final on Tuesday.