It’s finally here. An MLS game between two Southeast United States teams is about to take place, as expansion darlings Atlanta United visit Orlando City Stadium to take on the Lions tonight at 7 p.m. There’s been a lot of anticipation ahead of this series, with both fan bases taking an instant dislike to the other and — sadly, yet predictably — some ugliness already taking place.
Personally I’m not ready to give someone the “rival” moniker prior to the first meeting but it does seem like everyone around the league wants this to happen. If Miami or Tampa enter the league, the region could have its own version of the Cascadia Cup. But that’s a good distance down the road. For now, this is an important Eastern Conference match-up between two teams right in lockstep in the standings.
Atlanta United fans seem ready to anoint Orlando City as their team's main rival. What are some of the more interesting things you're seeing and hearing from the Atlanta fan base ahead of Friday's match?
Haris Kruskic: Most of the talk is about the Atlanta United billboard in downtown Orlando. That was pretty well done, whoever's idea that was. I've also seen many of the Atlanta supporters asking others to remain responsible on both social media and at Orlando City Stadium. Word is there are close to 1,000 fans making the trip, so I think it'll be a very fun atmosphere.
Then of course everyone's excited to see Brad Guzan's Atlanta debut. There are certainly a lot of talking points to discuss.
The United attack gets all the headlines. How much quality does the team actually have on the defensive side and does it even matter?
HK: If you asked Atlanta supporters before the season began, no one could've imagined that the club would have two defenders picked as MLS All-Stars. Greg Garza, in my opinion, has been the best left back in MLS this season. He's not afraid to contribute to an attack, which is great in a Tata Martino system. Michael Parkhurst has been solid, but I don't think anyone would say he's been an All-Star caliber player this season. Perhaps Veljko Paunovic just wanted more of a veteran presence included in the roster.
As for the two non-All-Stars, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is a great passer for a center back and has actually performed better than Parkhurst, frankly. Atlanta's right back situation is where things have gone a little funky. Tyrone Mears was the starter for most of the season up until a couple matches ago when Martino decided to go with the much younger option in Tottenham loanee Anton Walkes, although Walkes has mostly played as a center back during his professional career. It'll be interesting to see him attempt to adapt in an unfamiliar role.
So to answer your question, I would say there's a decent amount of quality on the defensive side for Atlanta, but that's all a club really needs if the attack continues to produce like they are.
Any mixed feelings about Brad Guzan after some less than stellar form both internationally and with his old team in England?
HK: Me personally, no. Although he's had some poor showings, I was actually impressed by him in the first match of the Gold Cup against Panama. I think it's all about establishing consistency, and it helps when the club you're now playing for isn't constantly near the bottom of the league.
The way I see it, Guzan is still better than the other goalkeeping options we currently have. Ignoring how much money we spent on him, all I can ask for now is that we put our best players on the pitch.
Any injuries we should know about? What is your projected starting XI and final score prediction?
Injuries: Kenwyne Jones (knee inflammation), Alec Kann (left quad), Jacob Peterson (lower leg).
Projected Lineup: Brad Guzan; Greg Garza, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Anton Walkes; Carlos Carmona, Jeff Larentowicz; Yamil Asad, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba; Josef Martinez.
Score Prediction: 1-0 Atlanta
Big thanks to Haris from Dirty South Soccer for stopping by and giving us the skinny on Atlanta United.