Rivalry or not, one of the most anticipated games of the year is here.
Billboards, banter, and much more have headlined the week, as Orlando City (8-7-5, 29 points) and expansion franchise Atlanta United (9-7-3, 30 points) get set to take the field for the first time together tonight at Orlando City Stadium (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Both head coaches have downplayed the talk of this being a “rivalry match,” which is perhaps the smart thing to say ahead of the first game and given the lack of history between the two teams. Regardless of what they’re saying, however, it’s very hard to deny that both teams see this as a game it must win.
The teams have had a couple of weeks off for the Gold Cup break, coming in well-rested for the match.
Orlando City was struggling prior to the break. After getting off to one of the hottest starts in league history, the Lions did a complete 180 at the start of May, winning just two games from then until now. They started the month with a 3-1 loss at home to Toronto FC, and now head into tonight’s match sitting just barely above the red line in sixth place in the Eastern Conference (conceding the goal differential tiebreaker to New York Red Bulls, who sit fifth).
Things are looking a little bit better up in the Peach State right now, as United has won four of its last five games, including three straight heading into the week, while sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
For the Lions, the challenges start up top. Because of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Orlando will be without Cyle Larin, who was called up by Canada for the knockout stage game last night, which Jamaica won, 2-1. This isn’t the first time the Lions have had to work without him, of course, and you can expect someone like Giles Barnes to potentially step up and replace Larin for the match.
Elsewhere on the pitch, the Lions are just about as fit as a team can be. They’ve had two weeks off, they’re rested, they’re re-energized, and they’re ready to hit the field tonight.
Eyes will also be on Kaká, who has three goals and four assists this season. He’s heading into the second half of what could be his final season with Orlando City, and there will be pressure from the fans to deliver a second half capable of helping carry the Lions to the playoffs.
United is #actuallygood. Atlanta has scored 39 goals in 19 games this season, three goals in a game three times, and four goals a whopping four times. By comparison: Orlando City hasn’t scored more than three goals in a game this season, and has only touched three once.
So the visitors can score.
And they have three of the league’s top goal scorers to prove it, with Josef Martinez (9), Miguel Almiron (8), and Hector Villalba (8). Oh, and Martinez has only played in nine games this season, so he works quickly.
Also, not for nothing, Brad Guzan is scheduled to make his debut in goal for Atlanta tonight after being sent home by the United States this week.
Player to Watch For
As I just mentioned, Martinez has been one of the most dangerous scorers in the league this year, and he’ll be a difficult test for an Orlando City defense that has struggled the last couple of months.
Prediction: Orlando City 1, Atlanta United 2
I have a very strong feeling that this night won’t go well for the home side. Please don’t be mad at it, it’s just a gut feeling, folks. I do, of course, hope that feeling turns out to be wrong and Orlando City comes out firing on all cylinders right off the bat.