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MLS is Back Tournament winners and losers: Orlando City surprises, LA Galaxy and Atlanta United are duds

Jim Reineking
USA TODAY

The first (and hopefully not last) MLS is Back Tournament concluded with the Portland Timbers prevailing over upstart Orlando City in Tuesday night's finale at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

Coach Giovanni Savarese's Timbers didn't just win a one-of-a-kind trophy, but also earned a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League competition.

Despite the premature exits of two teams — FC Dallas and Nashville SC — before the tournament started due to positive coronavirus tests, MLS is Back could be considered a success, helping reinforce the idea that sports can be played safely inside of bubble during a pandemic.

As the league moves forward with its regular season restarting (again) Wednesday, here's a look back at the best and worst from the month-long World Cup-style tournament:

WINNERS

Orlando City SC: Orlando advancing to the tournament final was a pleasant surprise for a team that hadn't experienced any success since joining the league in 2015. New coach Oscar Pareja appears to have turned this perpetual loser into a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, star player Nani turned back the clock to his former European splendor.

Orlando City wasn't the only revelation at MLS is Back. FC Cincinnati, Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Earthquakes were surprise teams to reach the Round of 16.

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The Portland Timbers' Larrys Mabiala celebrates his goal in a 2-1 win over Orlando City in the MLS is Back Tournament final.

Young American players: The U.S. men's national team might have failed to qualify for the last World Cup, but there's plenty to be excited about with the team moving forward. Young players are breaking through on clubs in Europe's top leagues. There are also a number of emerging USMNT prospects in MLS. Here are those who impressed the most in Orlando:

  • Ayo Akinola, forward, Toronto FC: The 20-year-old Akinola notched five goals in three games and was a breakout sensation in the early portion of the tournament. Akinola is eligible to play internationally for either the U.S., Canada or Nigeria. Having played for the U.S. U-15, U-17 and U-20 national teams, Akinola has yet to be capped by the senior team.
  • Brenden Aaronson, midfielder, Philadelphia Union: The Union's efforts with their developmental academy are starting to pay huge dividends, as both Aaronson, 19, and defender Mark McKenzie, 21, have been the topics of Euro transfer rumors.
  • Jeremy Ebobisse, forward, Portland Timbers: Ebobisse, 23, is vital off the field as a key voice in the league's new Black Players Coalition and performed admirably on it for the tournament winners.
  • Eryk Williamson, midfielder, Portland Timbers: Williamson, 23), who has yet to earn his first USMNT call-up, was a vital cog in the Timbers' midfield.
  • Chris Mueller, forward/midfielder, Orlando City SC: The three goals from Mueller, 23, in group play helped power the Lions into the knockout rounds.
  • James Sands, midfielder, New York City FC: NYCFC's first homegrown signing, Sands, 20, is another candidate to make a move to one of Europe's top leagues.

Black Players Coalition: Launched on Juneteenth, the efforts of the league's Black Players Coalition were ubiquitous at the month-long tournament. The Black Players for Change made their first move before Orlando City and Inter Miami played the tournament's opening game on July 8. More than 170 of the league's Black players lined the field, lifting their fists into air in a moment made more powerful by the silence from having no fans in attendance. The statement lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd, who was murdered by police in Minneapolis.

Players also knelt before each game to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement, and shirts designed by the Philadelphia Union's Warren Creavalle were worn by players in warmups, as well as coaches and staff members on the sidelines.

MLS is Back concept: Seriously, MLS could do a World Cup-style tournament every year. Maybe use it as a way to build momentum into the regular season. Maybe continue to use a single site (or one for each conference) to host games (Vegas, anybody?). This tournament is the perfect showcase for a league that always features a healthy dose of whimsy.

LOSERS

Frank de Boer: Atlanta United — a popular pick to contend for the tournament title — crashed out of the competition after three scoreless games. It was a dismal showing for what once was one of the most entertaining teams to watch. After the tournament, Atlanta parted ways with de Boer, and now one of MLS's premier franchises has hit a low point in its brief existence.

Los Angeles Galaxy: The Galaxy managed just one tie at the tournament, and it took a stoppage-time penalty kick to do it in the team's third and final game. That keeps the Guillermo Barros Schelotto-led Galaxy in the cellar of the Western Conference, sitting two points behind FC Dallas, which didn't even get to play at MLS is Back. The low point, of course, was a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of in-city rival, LAFC.

Inter Miami CF: By losing in their first two MLS games before the league shut down in mid-March, and then going 0-3 inside the bubble in Orlando, Inter Miami earned the unenviable distinction of being the first MLS expansion team to lose its first five games. David Beckham's team is still a work in progress, and help appears to be on the way in 2018 World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi, who has agreed to a deal with Inter Miami according to multiple reports.

FC Dallas and Nashville SC: The MLS is Back Tournament got off to a rough start before its first game was even played. Both FC Dallas and Nashville SC had to pull out of the competition due to positive COVID-19 tests. As MLS moves to resume its regular season in home markets, Dallas and Nashville will play twice — Wednesday (on ESPN+) and again on Sunday — before the rest of the league resumes play starting Aug. 20.