Orlando has been the self-proclaimed Soccer Capital of the South since the rise of Orlando City SC in 2011, and the title has been well deserved. Three USL titles in four seasons followed by a jump to Major League Soccer and incredible attendance numbers highlighted by crowds of 60,000+ for season-opening matches in 2015 and 2016, as well as the arrival of a number of international games, highlighted by the 2016 Copa América Centenario, with several more on the horizon — including a USMNT World Cup qualifier.
But since it began play in MLS this season, Atlanta United and its fans seem intent on making a run at that title.
One of the largest metro areas in the Southeastern U.S., Atlanta has entered the league with a bang, packing 55,297 fans into its first-ever MLS home match vs. New York Red Bulls and averaging 46,698 fans at games thus far inside Bobby Dodd Stadium, an impressive 85% of the 55,000-seat stadium’s capacity for each game.
Now these two teams, the only two MLS clubs in the Southeast, find themselves in a battle for the playoffs halfway through the 2017 season. Following Orlando City’s 3-1 loss on Wednesday night vs. Toronto, the Lions and ATL are separated by just one point in the table as they enter a unique back-to-back scenario on the schedule in which they’ll face off twice in a span of eight days.
In addition to being the first two meetings between the clubs, which could quickly develop a rivalry due to geographic proximity, these games also represent crucial fixtures in the race to the postseason. A big game against a title — or in this case, playoff — rival is often referred to as a six-point match, or a “six-pointer,” as the three points gained by the winning side are compounded by the denial of three points to a club in a similar position in the standings. As Orlando and Atlanta enter these two matches in the fourth and fifth positions in the East, respectively, the stage is set for two straight six-pointers that could have a large impact on the two teams’ postseason ambitions.
Win both games, and you catapult yourself into the driver’s seat to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers, sitting alongside Chicago, Toronto, and NYC. Lose both, and you could be in for a battle to sneak into the postseason in the fifth or sixth positions, with Columbus possibly passing you by and New York Red Bulls given an opportunity to gain ample ground.
It will be a stiff test for Orlando City, with so much riding on this two-game stretch in terms of postseason implications added to the fact that Atlanta is packed with firepower, having led MLS in goals scored (39) through its first 18 matches. We’ve seen brilliant defensive performances from City this year, but we’ve also seen the Lions get boat-raced on a few occasions, adding to the intrigue of the offense-vs.-defense, strength-vs.-strength match-up. Both teams are also stout at home, having combined for only four home losses on the year.
It’s only July, and there will still be 12 matches left to play for Orlando after this home-and-home series with Atlanta. But the Lions’ plans for the playoffs could be drastically affected by what happens in this eight-day stretch against what could be a formidable, budding rival.