Three teams now remain in pursuit of an MLS is Back trophy that has no history, but has major meaning for those who still chase it.
At stake for the winner is the cup itself, entry into the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, $1.1 million in prize money and the prestige that comes with all of it.
Portland beat Philadelphia 2-1 in one semifinal Wednesday night in Orlando. Minnesota United and Orlando City play in the other Thursday night.
Neither the Loons nor Lions were among pretournament favorites to advance this far and yet here they are, with a place in Tuesday’s final awaiting the winner. They have been quarantined and medically tested regularly since late June in a Disney resort hotel during a viral pandemic.
“Speaking for all four coaches, we’re excited to be here,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said in a video conference call Monday. “It has been five weeks of hard work and a lot of dedication from the players to get through this situation. Now we’re one step away from playing in a major final, with everything that comes with it.
“I’m really proud and pleased with the way players have responded and I’m really looking forward to the game. I know it’s going to be tough, but I also know it’s a game we can win.”
Orlando City moved up from American soccer’s minor leagues into MLS in 2015 and has yet to make the playoffs. It advanced from Group A undefeated in three games, won a knockout-round game and upset LAFC on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.
Heath coached Orlando City in its last USL Pro seasons in its first 55 MLS games before he was fired in July 2016. Minnesota United hired him four months later to lead it into the big leagues, as he did Orlando. The Loons made the playoffs last fall for the first time in Heath’s third season with them.
“There’s definitely a lot at stake, especially for newer teams,” said Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele in a video call, referring to both teams in Thursday’s semifinal. “We haven’t made the playoffs before. This is a great opportunity for us to win a trophy. The fans want this as bad as they want any other trophy and we look at it just as we’d look at any other trophy. The pressure is high. There’s a lot on the line.
“It’s not just we’re playing some tournament for fun right now. We understand there’s a lot on the line for us and there’s a lot on the line for the fans. They’re cooped up in their houses, too, and they want to us to win.”
Next winter, pandemic willing, the tournament’s winner will play in the 16-team Champions League club competition that features the best teams in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Akindele said such an invitation “opens a ton of new doors for next year.”
Minnesota United came within one victory of its first major trophy and a Champions League invitation last August when it lost the U.S. Open Cup final 2-1 at Atlanta.
“We didn’t come home with any hardware,” Loons defender Chase Gasper said. “That was one of the lowest points of the season, and we all said to each other we’re not going to let that happen again. But we still have a long way to go to get there.”
Gasper said a place in the Champions League would be “massive” and “catapult” the young franchise to that “next level” of recognition and respect — “Where everyone knows and fears you,” Gasper said — in this hemisphere.
Heath said his team’s reaction as it has advanced at every stage indicates how his players value a first-time tournament created as a way to get the league back playing again after a four-month pandemic pause.
“Look at the players’ reaction at the knockout stage and in the locker rooms after,” Heath said. “There’s an awful lot to play for and the players have shown how important it is. As I said to the players, we’ve been here more than a month now. What’s another two weeks? If we could in a week’s time be in the final and qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, I would be a very happy man.”