An Orlando City team that dealt pretty well with set pieces all tournament long failed to deal with two of them, and that was all it took for the Portland Timbers to win 2-1 in the MLS is Back Tournament final. Portland center backs Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic, of all people, got on the scoreboard, and that was enough to best Mauricio Pereyra’s lone tally for the Lions at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
It was just Orlando’s second loss to the Timbers, as the Lions dropped to 3-2-1 in all competitions against Portland since joining MLS. The loss stings, particularly as it was a final, but Orlando City acquitted itself well throughout the tournament and Oscar Pareja credited the Timbers’ defense.
“We found a team that clogged the last third of the field and had their block very low, and we were missing that last pass,” Pareja said after the match. “I think they defended well. I think you have to give credit to a team that has it clear. They lowered the block and we couldn’t break it.”
Pareja went with the same lineup, starting at the back with goalkeeper Pedro Gallese behind a back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Sebas Mendez and Uri Rosell were the holding midfielders behind an attacking midfield of Nani, Pereyra, and Chris Mueller, with Tesho Akindele at the top of the formation.
The game began cautiously, with Orlando holding most of the possession but being deliberate in the buildup so as not to give Portland opportunities in transition. As a result, the first 15 minutes went by without a shot attempt before Mueller had one blocked at the top of the area.
A minute later, Portland got forward for perhaps the first time and a great long ball from Sebastian Blanco nearly picked out Jeremy Ebobisse, but Gallese came off his line to punch it away. The Peruvian got a piece of Ebobisse on the follow-through and the Timbers’ forward needed a few minutes to recover.
Pereyra sent Nani in behind with a gorgeous ball in the 19th minute, but instead of taking a first-time shot, he brought it down and Portland was able to knock it out for a corner.
The Timbers opened the scoring against the run of play in the 27th minute. On a rather harmless-looking, long-range set piece, Diego Valeri served up an incredible back-post ball for Mabiala, who fought off a challenge from Moutinho and headed it off of Gallese’s hand and into the net for a 1-0 Timbers lead.
The Lions continued probing and leveled the game in the 39th minute. Nani crossed in from the left side for Pereyra and the ball pinged off a couple legs as Eryk Williamson came in from behind to challenge. Pereyra recovered first and slotted just inside the near post to make it 1-1. It was the Uruguayan’s second goal of the tournament.
Orlando nearly got Mueller an excellent chance two minutes later, as the young winger got the ball at the top of the area and spun around to try to face goal, but he showed a bit too much of the ball and the Timbers’ defense was able to knock it away.
After Valeri tried to go under the wall on a dangerous late free kick, the teams went into the break knotted up at 1-1. Orlando led in shots (5-4, with each team getting one on target), possession (63.4%), and passing accuracy (90%-81%).
Portland tried to jump on Orlando early in the second half, but Valeri saw his free kick saved by Gallese in the 48th minute and Blanco fired a shot that Jansson blocked out for a corner in the 51st.
Orlando nearly pulled off a great team effort in the 54th minute, when Pereyra dropped deep, pulling Diego Chara out of the middle and sending a forward ball to Akindele, who laid off for Mueller. The latter then sent a cross to Nani but the captain didn’t make good contact on his first-time shot attempt and it sailed off target.
The Lions nearly scored two minutes later, when a layoff found Mendez in the box, but Mabiala came out to block his potential go-ahead shot.
Gallese then made two outstanding saves in the 65th minute to keep the game level. First, he dove right to parry a Valeri free kick wide of goal. On the ensuing corner, the ball deflected out to Ebobisse, who fired, and El Pulpo made a huge stop.
That only saved the Lions for the moment though, because the Timbers scored on the next corner. The cross from Valeri found Eryk Williamson near the top left corner of the box and he made a quick move to keep Pereyra from clearing, then sent in a weak shot that took a deflection to Zuparic, who touched it through Nani and into the net for the eventual game-winner in the 66th minute.
“We work hard on that part and things didn’t bounce our way. We made a couple of mistakes,” Pareja said of the set pieces. “But the team was prepared and these boys work hard on that part, and sometimes you win games on those actions. Sometimes you lose games like that. You have to accept it and improve it, even when you win it. Today was one of those games. They had two chances on set plays and they took advantage.”
The Lions got a few set pieces at the other end over the next several minutes but could do nothing with them. Then Ruan got forward and nearly picked out Akindele in the 75th minute with a cross, but the defense was again sharp for Portland and cleared the danger.
In the 82nd minute, Jansson sent a low free kick just wide of goal but Steve Clark looked to have it covered for the Timbers. Benji Michel won a free kick in the 89th minute but that nearly turned into an insurance goal for Portland. Pereyra didn’t get enough loft on his service and the Timbers countered with numbers. Valeri ended up with the ball, but Gallese again came up big with a save to keep the Lions in it.
Orlando should have equalized in stoppage time. A free kick found Jansson, who could only flick it on. Substitute Kyle Smith tried to pick it out of the air with the net gaping in front of him, but he couldn’t make good contact with the aerial ball and it sailed agonizingly over the bar.
That was that. The whistle went soon after and Orlando’s run came to an end.
Orlando finished with more shots (14-13), but the Lions weren’t sharp, getting only one on target to Portland’s six. City held 63.8% of the possession and was the more accurate passing team (89%-79%) but just couldn’t find that little bit of quality in front of goal.
Nani said that the team can take a lot away from its MLS is Back run.
“We learned we are a better team at this moment,” he said. “We improved as a group, as a club. And let’s be honest, we must accept that we are not the same team as before. And you all know that. You’ve all seen our games. You’ve seen this final. You’ve seen the way that we are playing. You see the way every team we play behaves against us.
“We know we are a team who needs to improve. But at this moment I’m so happy to be on this team, with this coach, with this staff. We took these two months to improve and we did it. And to every team in MLS now who will face us, they know they will face a strong team.”
That’s all for the tournament, folks. The Lions are back in regular-season action on Saturday, Aug. 22, when they will visit Inter Miami with kickoff scheduled for 8 p.m.