The Portland Timbers are champions.
No, they didn't win Major League Soccer's ultimate prize, but they did prevail in the MLS Is Back Tournament, a competition many analysts gave them little chance of winning.
The Timbers beat Orlando City FC 2-1 in the final match of the tournament, which, like the NBA playoffs, has been taking place in a bubble on the campus of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
Both goals came off set pieces at close range from normally defensive-minded center backs: the first a bouncy header by Larrys Mabiala off a Diego Valeri free kick, the second a tic-tac-toe finish by Dario Zuparic off a Valeri corner kick and nifty Eryk Williamson shot that was first deflected by Jeremy Ebobisse. It was the 28-year-old Croatian's first goal in a Timbers jersey.
The first-ever trophy from an improvised pandemic bubble tournament is not exactly the Stanley Cup, but winning any soccer tournament is big. It's just the fourth time the Timbers have made a final: the 1975 NASL Soccer Bowl, the 2015 MLS Cup, the 2018 MLS Cup, and now, this. They also get $300,000 in prize money and clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, which the Timbers have only made twice before.
"I think every tournament, every season that you play, every moment that you compete is special when you achieve something important," head coach Giovanni Savarese said.
At the post-game press conference, Mabiala and Sebastian Blanco—the likely Player of the Tournament, with three goals and five assists—also spoke about how much harder it would have been to lose the final after being separated from their families in Portland for well over a month.
Instead of the usual hat or shirt, the Timbers got rather generic-looking black Adidas face masks with "CHAMPIONS" in white letters, which Valeri briefly dropped to lead a whooping celebration with the silver cup.
If all goes well, they'll never give that trophy back. Part of the tournament's appeal was the possibility that it might be the only MLS soccer Timbers fans would get this year. But just in case, the tournament's three group stage games counted toward the MLS regular season standings.
And sure enough, this past Saturday, the league released its plans for a return to play. Assuming they can actually finish it, what would have normally been a 34-game season, with the MLS Cup tournament running from Oct. 4 to Nov. 7, will now be 23 games, five of which have already been played.
An expanded MLS Cup playoff—18 clubs instead of 14—will run Dec. 12. As in Major League Baseball, the matches will take place in home stadiums, with plans for every-other-day player testing, chartered flights and up-and-back travel where possible.
"At this time, the majority of the matches will be played without fans in attendance," MLS said in its announcement.
The Timbers are scheduled to open against Seattle at Providence Park on Aug. 23, with five more announced games (two home, three road) through Sept. 13.
Back in May, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said large sporting events would not be allowed in the state through at least September, and that's likely to hold—as it is, even the team's plans for its first game are not yet officially approved.
"The governor's office and the Oregon Health Authority are currently in conversations with the Timbers about what a safe return to play looks like and what health and safety protocols are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Charles Boyle, the governor's spokesman, tells WW via email. "OHA is reviewing the Timbers' plans now."
He added there would be further updates "as we get closer to Aug. 23."