The Best XI from the MLS Is Back Tournament

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistAugust 12, 2020

The Best XI from the MLS Is Back Tournament

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Portland Timbers received some of the most consistent sets of performances from their players at the MLS is Back Tournament. 

    Giovanni Savarese's men hoisted the MLS is Back trophy with a 2-1 win over Orlando City that featured a handful of standouts once again thriving in their roles. Portland has been known for years by the play of Diego Valeri and Diego Chara, but two other midfielders stood out during the competition. 

    In total, three Timbers qualified for our best XI of the tournament, and a few others were given serious consideration. 

    Orlando City, Philadelphia and Minnesota United all impressed in their surprisingly deep runs, which were made possible by some of the best individual performers of the tournament. 

    The list of standouts from just over a month of play at ESPN's Wide World of Sports also extends to a few squads that were kicked out of the knockout round early on, including two of the tournament's most electric scorers. 


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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union

    Andre Blake's performance in net was one of the primary reasons Philadelphia made a run to the semifinals.

    The Jamaican international produced six and seven saves in group-stage outings against Orlando City and New York City FC, respectively, and pushed away three shots in the win over Inter Miami.

    Blake made 11 more denials in the Union's pair of knockout-round victories over Sporting Kansas City and New England.

    The high volume and quality of saves had him in contention for the tournament's Most Valuable Player award before the Union were sent home following a semifinal loss to Portland.


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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Ruan, Orlando City

    Ruan established himself as one of the best fullbacks in the league, and that's a position that has improved across MLS in the last two years.

    The Brazilian right back was a menace for opposing defenses with his overlapping runs, and he contributed to a much-improved Lions defense.

    Orlando did not allow more than one goal in a single match until the championship, which was a massive improvement from a team that conceded on 52 occasions in 2019.


    Mark McKenzie, Philadelphia Union

    Mark McKenzie was one of the many young players who stood out during the group phase.

    The Philadelphia center back was a consistent force in the middle of his team's defense, which did not allow multiple goals in a single game until the semifinals.

    The 21-year-old American was positionally sound through six games and parlayed his strong performance into interest from European clubs.


    Dario Zuparic, Portland Timbers

    Portland's center back pairing of Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala did not receive as much love as the players who reside in front of them in the club's formation, but they were just as important in Portland's run to the MLS is Back title.

    The two combined to fend off the challenge posed by Nani, who did not make a massive impact on the final outside of Orlando's lone goal.

    Zuparic finished his tournament by scoring the title-winning goal off a set piece.


    Antonio Carlos, Orlando City

    When MLS is Back began, no one would have guessed Orlando City would have one of the most stout defenses at the tournament.

    Antonio Carlos helped the Lions open the knockout round with a clean sheet. One of his better performances came against Los Angeles FC in the quarterfinals when he won four aerial duels while making six interceptions and two clearances.

    Although Orlando did not win the final, it set a terrific foundation that could propel it to the franchise's first-ever playoff berth.


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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Jan Gregus, Minnesota United

    Minnesota United's midfielders were the most underrated stars of the knockout round.

    Jan Gregus led a unit that limited the impact of Columbus' Darlington Nagbe in the round of 16 and solved San Jose's man-marking system in the quarterfinals.

    Gregus teamed with MLS veteran Osvaldo Alonso to quell the opposing threats and allowed the Minnesota attack to surge forward without many defensive consequences.

    Just like fellow semifinalists Orlando and Philadelphia, the Loons have to come away from MLS is Back with a positive mindset, expecting more success to come in the regular season.


    Eryk Williamson, Portland Timbers

    Eryk Williamson was the revelation of the tournament.

    The 23-year-old midfielder shut down the central channels alongside Diego Chara, who continued to prove he is one of the best overall players in MLS.

    Williamson, who had seven prior appearances in two years with the Timbers going into MLS is Back, also helped the Timbers counter forward after he, Chara and others won the ball in their own half.

    If Portland's midfield remains this consistent in the regular season, it could top the Western Conference and contend for the MLS Cup.


    Sebastian Blanco, Portland Timbers

    Sebastian Blanco was responsible for a goal in every Timbers game except the championship match. 

    In the group stage, he scored against the LA Galaxy and provided an assist in every game. The 32-year-old followed that up with an assist in the round of 16, a tally and a helper in the quarterfinals and the goal that sent Portland into the final.

    Although he was not responsible for either of the Timbers' goals Tuesday, Blanco deserves consideration to be named the tournament's MVP.


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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Nani, Orlando City

    It is hard to say a player of Nani's experience took his game to another level at MLS is Back, but compared to 2019, that is exactly what he did.

    The Portuguese winger proved why the Lions spent so much to have him spearhead their attack. His masterpiece occurred in the semifinal win over Minnesota United, during which he produced a pair of goals.

    Nani also scored the winning penalty and assisted on Joao Moutinho's equalizer in the quarterfinal win over LAFC.

    If he plays at this level in Oscar Pareja's system, Nani could eclipse his 12-goal, 10-assist season from a year ago, even in a condensed schedule.


    Ayo Akinola, Toronto FC

    Ayo Akinola played the fewest games of the players in the best XI, but he more than deserved his position. After all, the 20-year-old produced five goals in a two-game span to help Toronto FC get out of Group C.

    Akinola opened his tournament with a pair of tallies against D.C. United and followed that up with a hat trick in the seven-goal thriller against Montreal.

    Unfortunately, Akinola was unable to participate in the round of 16 due to a hamstring injury, but he left a mark on MLS in the short time we saw him.


    Diego Rossi, Los Angeles FC

    Diego Rossi one-upped Akinola by scoring four goals in the 6-2 thumping of the LA Galaxy.

    The Uruguayan produced five goals during the group stage in place of Carlos Vela, who opted out of the tournament.

    Rossi and the other LAFC forwards proved how much depth the club has at the position by scoring 11 group-stage goals.

    His final starring performance was a two-goal outing in the round of 16 win over Seattle.