Atlanta United are just days away from a chance to lift a second trophy in a month at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the U.S. Open Cup final. But before that, there’s a road trip to Florida to take care of as they head to Exploria Stadium to take on Orlando City as part of Heineken Rivalry Week. The Five Stripes have never lost to their neighbors to the South, and have the top seed in the East to protect. But with the Lions fighting for a playoff spot of their own, there is plenty on the line in what should be a must-see matchup.
It all kicks off at 8:00 p.m. EST Friday on ESPN. Click here for all the ways to tune in.
Atlanta United (14-9-3)
Atlanta United comes into Friday’s match in red-hot form, winning seven of their past eight matches in all competitions and lifting the Campeones Cup after beating Liga MX giants Club América at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this month. But with another Cup final on Tuesday and the margin for error still razor thin in the Eastern Conference, there’s no time to let up now.
Leading the attack will be Josef Martinez, who is looking to extend his MLS record 11-match scoring streak during which time he’s tallied 16 goals. With Pity Martínez in great form and Ezequiel Barco back fit from injury, the Five Stripes boast a dynamic, fluid attack that was a relentless force in Portland last weekend. But they’re not the only ones in form, with Julian Gressel’s pinpoint passing proving to be telepathic with Josef Martinez and Darlington Nagbe’s consistently exceptional possession play the metronome for everything the Five Stripes have done in their rise up the Eastern Conference standings. Dion Pereira and Justin Meram have been sharing time on the left flank, but if the team’s last trip to Orlando is any indication, Meram is ready to run his socks off against his former club if he’s selected.
But offense is only half the equation and there’s a reason Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan leads the league in clean sheets this year. Miles Robinson continues to put up MLS Defender of the Year type performances, cleaning up everything that makes it to him in the Five Stripes back line, while Leandro González Pirez’s aggressive defense and pinpoint passing make him a threat in both directions from the center back position. Eric Remedi and Franco Escobar were held out of last match with injury, but the team’s next-man-up mentality is fully on display, as Jeff Larentowicz and Florentin Pogba have showed off the team’s depth with lockdown appearances of their own in their place. With Brad Guzan in sensational individual form of his own, this is a team clicking on all cylinders from front to back.
Orlando City (9-11-7)
There’s always pride on the line in this matchup, but with Orlando City sitting one place below the playoff line, they have a lot to play for as they seek their first postseason appearance in team history.
They’ll have to play without one of their players of the season, with Brazilian fullback Ruan expected to be out for the match with a hamstring injury. That means they will be without one of their best two-way threats on the right flank, with Joao Moutinho in and out of the lineup on the opposite side. But they’re still expected to have a much-improved centerback partnership available for selection in Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson, with Brian Rowe in between the goalposts behind them. And defense starts ahead of the back line, so expect a combative pair of holding midfielders trying to lock down the center of the park as they try to slow Atlanta United’s attacking momentum before they can reach the back four. Will Johnson and Jhegson Mendez has been the first-choice duo for much of the season, but keep an eye out for new signing Mauricio Pereyra, who combines attacking intelligence with defensive workrate and could be a key addition after making his first appearance for the club last weekend.
In front of them is an attacking line that is in a bit of a finishing slump, scoring more than one goal just twice in twelve matches since the beginning of July. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have weapons: Portuguese winger Nani is capable of creating a chance against anyone in MLS, while Tesho Akindele has had a resurgent year on the opposite wing for the Lions. Expect Dom Dwyer to lead the line with Homegrown youngster Benji Michel starting to blossom on the wing as well. And Orlando tends to bring on a couple key impact subs in MLS veteran Sacha Kljestan and 2018 SuperDraft pick Chris Mueller. Both players are capable of changing a match off the bench, so the Five Stripes can’t switch off in the closing minutes of this one.
There’s always something extra on the line during Heineken Rivalry Week, and with both teams fighting for postseason positions, this is one you won’t want to miss. If you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.