Set to kick-off Tuesday night in Orlando, the MLS is Back Tournament final matchup is between the Portland Timbers and Orlando City. The championship pits the tactics of Giovanni Savarese versus those of Óscar Pareja in what will certainly be a highly contested and fiery final. With the headline being two top MLS international talents in Diego Valeri of the Timbers and former Man United winger Nani of Orlando City, this is a battle to see who is the king of the Orlando bubble. Both players are in great goal scoring form and looking to continue that in order to earn them and their respective clubs that coveted CONCACAF Champions League spot.

This tactical analysis will look at how both teams were able to punch their ticket to the final. With an analysis of the tactics which have worked thus far for each, as well as the expected lineups and key players who will be looking to make the difference for their club, the ultimate goal is to be crowned champions of this Orlando bubble MLS is Back Tournament and take that champions league spot back home.


MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tacticsWith both clubs coming off of decisive victories in their last match, it seems likely that both managers will look to start with the same eleven. Meaning Savarese will likely keep Valeri in his starting eleven and look to attack in their typical narrow 4-2-3-1 and defend in a 4-4-2 keeping those two low blocks. Pareja and Orlando City will likely continue with their attacking 3-4-3 utilising Nani and Chris Mueller out wide who have both been in goal scoring form in this tournament. However, the most interesting aspect will be the effectiveness of Orlando City right-back Ruan who typically pushes extremely high on the right as they gain possession. Potentially overloading the left side of the Timbers defence poses a unique problem Portland hasn’t had to deal with yet in this tournament.  

Overloading the Timbers defence

The key in this match for Orlando City will be overloading the Portland defence which has done so well to prevent teams from breaking them down in this tournament. However, the ability of Orlando City to break down the Timbers defence will rely heavily on three players, Nani, Mueller, and Ruan. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tactics

In the picture above we see the attacking chances and expected goals from the semi-final of Orlando City and Minnesota with average positions of each player during the match. Interestingly, the best quality chances came from the left side where Nani operates. However, when looking at the average player positions it’s notable that both Mueller and Ruan occupied the right side which would put them both in good attacking positions once receiving the ball. Ultimately, with the two of them in advanced positions, they are dragging extra defenders and therefore creating even more opportunities for Nani to be isolated 1v1 on the left side. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tactics

Above is the expected shape for the Timbers defensively in their 4-4-2 as well as Orlando’s shape when attacking down the right side in this tournament. Here we see these 1v1 matchups which Pareja will view as favourable for his quality attacking players. With the ball at the feet of one of his central midfielders, we see the backline of Orlando has shifted into a three and Ruan the right-back has pressed high up the field. This allows Mueller, the right-winger, to move inside and create not only a 1v1 situation for himself and a defending centre-back but also a 1v1 situation for Ruan the opposing right-back. Placing the Orlando City centre forward Tesho Akindele in his own 1v1 situation with the remaining centre-back. Allowing the central attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra the opportunity to sit underneath Akindele in the half-space between the midfield and defensive lines unmarked.

This particular situation has created numerous quality attacking chances for Orlando City in this tournament. Either playing through the lines using Pereyra, or even quick 1-2’s between Mueller and Ruan in order to create crossing opportunities for Tesho Akindele, Nani, and Mueller to go and finish off in the box.

MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tacticsIt also creates opportunities to find Nani isolated 1v1 on the left side when teams shift and cut off passing lanes on the right side of the field. After quickly switching the ball across the field, teams typically are unable to shuffle across and account for Nani out wide. As you can see above, once he has the ball out wide in his own 1v1 situation, he has several options he can choose from. With his individual skill often times he will engage his defender and look to beat them either wide or inside. Once wide, he typically looks to cross to one of the three options we see in the image above. With Akindele running at the near post, Mueller running centrally and, lastly, Ruan picking up anything that is overhit towards the far post. Ultimately, if Nani is able to beat his defender inside, he is typically is able to smash a bent shot to the far post, which he has proven in this tournament is even more dangerous than allowing him to cross.

If and likely when Orlando are able to find these two shapes situations, they will pose a problem for Savarese and the Timbers in their low blocks of 4. With Ruan and Mueller high it creates almost a front four for Orlando City, creating 1v1 situations for each of the back four defenders of Portland. Meaning either Savarese and Portland will either have to defend well in those 1v1 situations or perhaps shift two a back five at times to provide cover in those instances. 

Portland on the break

The keys for Portland in this match are to continue to defend effectively in their low blocks and be lethal on the counter. Therefore, the two players who will likely play the crucial roles are Sebastián Blanco, former EPL and West Brom lad, and Valeri. The two playmakers have been vital in creating and scoring goals for the Portland Timbers throughout this MLS is back tournament. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tactics

When investigating their match against the Union we see as a team the Timbers looked to attack down the ride regularly. With over 2x the number of total attacks of the left and middle with 17 total. Interestingly, we see both Valeri and Blanco operated mostly in the centre of the field, with Valeri in a more advanced position. Still, there is no debate that the two are extremely important in creating the attacking opportunities for the Timbers and often either play the key pass or shot which leads to scoring. Therefore, it is up to them both to find those pockets to receive the ball which will likely be on the left side in this final. 

Playing against Orlando City, the Timbers will have defend for long periods in this match. Therefore, it’s extremely important when they do win the ball they have an understanding of where space will be available to hit on the counter.

MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tactics

The simplest example comes if they are able to win the ball off of Ruan or Mueller on their left side defensively. Once in possession, the Timbers left midfielder or winger likely to be Blanco, will become an outlet as the Timbers shift to a back three with the space made vacant by Ruan going forward. Creating a quick outlet to start the Timbers counter as the Orlando back three will have to stay narrow in order to protect counters down the middle of the field. As that happens the right midfielder and both forwards will be able to do the exact same. In this situation, it’s quite clear the space the Timbers will need to exploit is in behind the Orlando City back three. Their success in this counter will depend on the ability to transition and be precise in their passing in order to avoid allowing Orlando to find their shape defensively.

MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tactics

The second situation will occur if they can win the ball off Nani or another Orlando City attacker closer to the right side of the field. Again, the space out wide and in behind will be available to attack immediately due to their shape and Ruan pushing high. However, if the Timbers can find a pass central to the opposite central midfielder it could create even more issues for Orlando. Getting the ball central and finding that midfielder will create a 3v3 centrally for the Timbers and a likely 1v0 down both wide channels.

As the ball will be central and the two forward for the Timbers will be looking to get in behind as well this could where Portland is most dangerous. From this position, if the Timbers central midfielder plays quickly to a wide channel it will allow him and both forwards to make dangerous runs towards the Orlando City box. This, coupled with the quality of Blanco and Valeri, could create the opportunities needed for Portland to make their counterattacks count. If they are able to capitalise early from a counter down their defending will have to remain strong as Orlando City will continue to look to attack with numbers up situations regardless of the score.

Two different styles

Ultimately, we are going to see two very different and contrasting styles. Orlando loves to be in possession and push numbers forward to create numerical advantages. On the contrary, Portland remains steady and organised defending in low blocks and looking to counter using the quality of players like Blanco and Valeri. This is perhaps best illustrated from both clubs passing statistics from their semi-final matchups. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Portland Timbers vs Orlando City - tactical preview - tactics

Here we see exactly that. Portland had nearly 200 total passes less than Orlando in their semi-final. However, notable in the key passes, smart passes, and passes to the penalty area the clubs are much similar, highlighting that, even though they have less possession, Portland is still extremely dangerous and accurate in the final third, especially on the counter. Stats further highlight their quality on the break and how lethal Blanco and Valeri can be. However, if Portland is unable to sort out their defence Orlando also has the capability to be lethal through players like Mueller and Nani. 


This tactical preview has explained the tactics of both clubs in how they were able to reach this MLS is back tournament final. Ultimately, this is an extremely intriguing and unexpected final. With Savarese’s and Pareja’s contrasting styles it will likely be a brilliant clash of possession-based attacking football with resilient defensive and counter-attacking football. Who will come out victorious and claim the cash prize and coveted CONCACAF Champions League spot? Will it come from a devastating counter from Blanco, Valeri and the Timbers or a bit of individual brilliance from Nani, a former UEFA Champions League winner and experienced big tournament player.