Orlando City is set to kick off what is easily its toughest stretch of games of the 2019 MLS season so far, and possibly the most difficult of the season. A two-game road swing will pass through two stadiums with artificial surfaces and the biggest average home crowds in Major League Soccer when the Lions visit Atlanta this Sunday and then traverse the continent to face the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday night.
Although I’m not on board with the whole “most hated rivals” thing that MLS and some fans would like to perpetuate when it comes to Orlando City vs. Atlanta United — after all, how can you have a rivalry in a series where the clubs have met only six times and only one team wins the games? — I do think Sunday’s match is going to be a hotly contested one. United is coming off a midweek game (albeit at home) and the Lions know going in that the Seattle fixture on short rest will be extremely difficult. I expect a bit of squad rotation over the next two weeks and with Atlanta being in the Eastern Conference, I expect James O’Connor to prioritize the trip to Georgia in terms of squad selection.
The Lions seem up to the challenge of heading up to face their closest MLS neighbors (at least until the Beckham train gets rolling in South Florida).
“Regardless of who’s on the pitch for them, they’ve got a great team and that stadium out there, that atmosphere, it’s always going to be a test, but it’s something that I know we’re looking forward to stepping up and competing,” goalkeeper Brian Rowe said after training on Wednesday. “Even though it’s a hostile environment it’s something that we look forward to and something that pumps us up as well. So, I think it’s a great opportunity to go in there and compete.”
There’s only so much preparation a team can do when going to places like Atlanta and Seattle. Given Orlando’s training facilities, the team must look inward to prepare. It’s difficult to replicate the surface or the crowd noise. But O’Connor is stressing the importance of understanding the opponent and rising to the moment.
“You’re obviously going into the champions at their home in front of, whatever it is, sixty, seventy thousand people. It’s going to be a massive game,” he said. “These are the types of games that our players should want to play in. So, I think for us it’s just being pretty strategic in where are they strong, where are the movements that they try to make, have a good understanding, make sure the players understand all of that and then go give a good account for ourselves and have a strong performance in Atlanta.”
The chief concern for Orlando will be defending Atlanta’s potent attack, both off of possession and in transition. Josef Martinez has tortured the Lions during Atlanta’s brief time in MLS, scoring six goals in four games during the first two seasons’ worth of match-ups. While others were labeling Ezequiel Barco as a bust during his first MLS season, he still scored two goals in three meetings last year — and that’s before his breakout 2019 that has him at six goals and an assist in eight matches this season. And Hector Villalba has scored two gut-punching goals against Orlando — both on or after the 86th minute to steal points from the Lions.
It will be vital for the Lions to stay defensively sound, which they’ve been able to do on the road so far in 2019, where they’ve conceded only four goals in four games.
“I’ve got more than enough confidence in our team and what we’ve shown this year that we can do well defensively,” Rowe said. “It’s just knowing our roles and as a team collectively just kind of getting done what we need to.”
The trip to Atlanta will set the tone for this stretch of games. Crossing the country to play at Seattle on short rest for a game at what your body clock says is 10 p.m. is not the best recipe for success. Then the team must fly back across the country for its third game in eight days. That game may not be against one of the toughest opponents in MLS, but FC Cincinnati will not be a pushover as a well-rested group. Cincinnati will have had a week of rest between hosting the Montreal Impact on Saturday and the trip to Orlando. The Lions then must again respond on a short week, hosting the LA Galaxy five days after the Cincinnati match.
Despite the level of difficulty on Sunday, it’s important to kick off this stretch with a positive result. So this week’s preparation might be the team’s most important of 2019 in terms of determining whether the Lions can remain in the playoff race or begin the typical long, slow fade in the summer months. It all starts Sunday in Atlanta.
“We have our game plan,” left back Joao Moutinho said. “We know what are their weaknesses and what we have to do, so hopefully we’ll be able to get the win.”