Atlanta United (14-9-3) are coming off seven wins in eight matches with a chance to lift their second trophy of the season next week. But first they have to travel south to face Orlando (9-11-7) as part of Heineken Rivalry Week. With both teams fighting for postseason position and the margins still razor thin at the top of the Eastern Conference, this is a match with plenty on the line –– and one you won’t want to miss.
Ahead of this weekend’s matchup, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot:
Nail Down Nani
One player who has plenty of experience in big matches is Portuguese and former Manchester United winger Nani. He’s the complete package when it comes to wingers in this league, with the speed and power to beat a player, the technique to break down the defense, lethal finishing ability and the passing intelligence to cut open a back line. In fact, Orlando City’s best chance the last time these two teams faced off came off Nani getting behind the defense and finding Dom Dwyer open in front of goal. The Five Stripes are known to attack from the fullback position, but they’ll need to be aware of where Nani is on the field and not let him get into open space behind the back line. If they can stay behind him and avoid one-one-one situations by providing help defense, it could go a long way to shutting down their most impactful player.
Spread the Wings
Perhaps Orlando City’s second-best player behind Nani this year has been Brazilian fullback Ruan, who has been ruled out for this weekend with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile his counterpart on the left flank, Joao Moutinho, has been in and out of the lineup as well. Atlanta’s Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martínez have been electric on either side of the attacking three, which has in turn opened up space for the likes of Julian Gressel and Justin Meram to run rampant down the wide areas. If Atlanta United can take advantage of the space behind the defense when the fullbacks push forward, and perhaps capitalize on the inexperience of the backups, it could create wide-open areas to counter-attack into –– and those moments of transition have been where Atlanta United has excelled in recent weeks. Finding those mismatches on either flank could open up chances for Atlanta United to get that crucial opening goal.
Feed the King
When Josef Martinez is playing like this, it seems almost a given that he’s going to change the outcome of the match. With a goal in his past eleven MLS matches –– with 16 scored in that time –– there’s no doubt who the most in-form striker in the league is right now. And when a striker is in this kind of form, teams have to ride the hot hand. Juilan Gressel’s service into the reigning MVP has been lethal for years now, while the dynamic runs of Pity Martínez and Ezequiel Barco have opened up space for Josef to thrive. Finding Martinez in dangerous spaces has to be the focal point for the attack –– if they do that, Josef can do the rest.
It's two teams in need of a win as they fight for postseason positions, and with the extra layer of Heineken Rivalry Week, this is one you won’t want to miss. If you can’t make the trip to Florida, click here for all the ways to tune into the match.