With only nine matches remaining in the regular season, Atlanta United is looking to keep the pace at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings by kicking off a four-match road trip with a win against Eastern Conference rivals Orlando City. While the neighbors to the South are in a patchy run of form, they always pose a tough challenge and will love nothing more than playing spoiler to the Five Stripes on their home pitch. It’s another crucial match in the home stretch of the season and one you won’t want to miss.
The match is set to kick off at 8:00 p.m. EST Friday from Orlando City Stadium. For those who can’t make the trip, tune in on ESPN or stream the match live via the Watch ESPN App. Click here for all the other ways to follow along with the match.
Atlanta United (15-4-6)
Atlanta United sit on top of the Supporters’ Shield standings once again as they continue their push for silverware. And any discussion of their position has to start with Josef Martinez, who continued his incredible season last weekend with his 27th goal of 2018, tying the record for most goals in an MLS regular season. A goal against Orlando City this weekend would not only put him in sole possession of that record, it would also tie the record for most consecutive games with a goal: 9, set by Diego Valeri. It’s a season unlike anything this league has seen before, and anyone who has watched Martinez in MLS the past two seasons know his hunger to make the record his own is unparalleled.
But maybe more important in last week’s victory was the goalscoring contributions outside of Martinez, with Almirón and Villalba both putting one in the net in the 3-1 win over Columbus. While Almirón has been as dangerous as ever in the build-up play, he admitted Sunday that he’d hit a dry run in front of goal. His long-range effort could be a big boost to his confidence heading toward the playoff. With Villalba in sensational form and Ezequiel Barco making his return to the lineup last match, this offense is clicking at the right time.
But none of that translates to wins without defending the other way, and the Five Stripes are as solid as ever. They’ve conceded just 13 goals in their past 13 matches, tied with the New York Red Bulls for the fewest goals allowed in the league in that time. While the usual suspects like Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, Leandro González Pirez, Chris McCann, Franco Escobar and Brad Guzan have been as solid as ever, the introduction of Eric Remedi in midfield has been a seamless reinforcement that has helped turn Atlanta United into a team just as intimidating with their defense as with their high-flying offense.
Orlando City (7-5-12)
Ever since their six-match win streak was snapped by the Five Stripes earlier this year, Orlando City has struggled for form, winning just one time in league play since May 6th. The run has pushed them down into tenth place, ten points below the playoff line. But that doesn’t guarantee anything for Atlanta on Friday –– with the Lions’ back against the wall, every win is crucial and nothing would jump-start their season more than three points this week.
The biggest question marks are in the lineup. Jonathan Spector and Lamine Sané are expected to be out with injury, while midfielders Yoshi Yotún and Cristian Higuita are suspended for the match. Sacha Kjlestan is in contention to return, though, and if fit, will be looking to dictate the passing and tempo of Orlando City’s play. If he’s on the pitch, his one-touch passing and ball movement will be the biggest key for the Atlanta United defensive midfielders to disrupt. Of course Dom Dwyer is always a threat up top, and with three goals in his last three matches, he’s in a good run of form. Dwyer has scored twice against the Five Stripes in the past, and his scrappy, tenacious style will be a handful for Atlanta United defenders.
But Orlando City does have vulnerabilities, particularly in the back line, where they’ve now conceded 57 goals this season –– more than any other team in MLS –– and they’re expected to be without both first-choice center backs again this weekend. Atlanta United put four goals on the board the last time these two teams played –– and two more on Orlando’s turf in May –– and they will be confident they can make it more. They can turn that attacking threat into a win if they can keep things water-tight at the back.
It’s a chance for a crucial three points for the Five Stripes in their quest for silverware, and a match that always proves to be fireworks on the pitch. You won’t want to miss a minute, so tune in to ESPN at 8:00 p.m. EST on Friday. For streaming information and all other ways to follow along with the match, click here.