Atlanta United’s two-legged tie against Alajuelense that ended with an aggregate score of 2-0 for the good guys proved what was more or less expected; the Five Stripes are already better off than 2020, though still need time to gel and adapt to Gabriel Heinze’s style of play. It was enough to progress past Alajuelense, but now a much more rugged test is on the horizon. The Five Stripes are set to take on a rather familiar foe in Orlando City to kick off its MLS regular season, an opponent that would love nothing more than to make Heinze’s league debut a painful one. As for Atlanta’s Argentine boss, what better way than to make a first(ish) impression than resuming the Atlanta tradition of beating Orlando?
Atlanta and Orlando swapped roles last season, as the Floridians made playoffs for the first time in its sixth season while Atlanta missed out on the postseason for the first time in four years. Natural order will hopefully be restored this time around, but Orlando looks nearly as strong as ever (which, for Orlando, is not much). Still, Oscar Pareja’s side brought in Alexandre Pato and Silvester van der Water to reinforce the attack while Daryl Dike is scoring for fun at Barnsley in the English Championship. The former two will join Nani, Chris Mueller, and Benji Michel as starters, easing the effect of the departure of Dike. The rest of the squad remains the same from 2020 and Pareja will have had an additional offseason to implement his ideas. In short, don’t expect the Orlando that went winless against Atlanta for three seasons to show up Saturday. On paper, the Lions are one of the better teams in the East and Atlanta will be hard pressed to walk away from Exploria Stadium with all three points.
The Five Stripes do have one advantage, however. Its already played twice coming into Saturday and has the edge in match fitness, whereas Orlando will be dealing with the effects of rust after last playing in November. One of the biggest factors in escaping Florida with a result will be Atlanta’s attacking corps. Neither Lisandro Lopez, Ezequiel Barco, or Jurgen Damm impressed by any great standard against Alajuelense, though they did show glimpses of quality. If they can click against Orlando, the Purple Lions’ defense will have its hands full. If not, Orlando will be able to attack Atlanta more freely without the knowledge that a Josef Martinez is waiting to make them pay.
Predicted Starting XIs
With Josef going an hour on Tuesday, Lopez the Elder is the favorite to get the starting nod while the Venezuelan takes on the role of super-sub. Brad Guzan will be back from his suspension in place of Rocco Rios Novo, but Alan Franco might not be available thanks to the beauty of paper work issues. Damm could start on right wing after his game winning goal against Alajuelense, while Marcelino Moreno and Barco could take either left wing or attacking mid.
Prediction: Orlando City 0-1 Atlanta United
While we’re unlikely to enjoy an entertaining, free-flowing ninety minutes, a win isn’t out of the question. Orlando will be rusty and just exiting preseason, and Atlanta can capitalize on that. Goals weren’t an often feature of the Alajuelense tie, but if the Five Stripes knock one in, it has shown the capability to defend for long stretches of the game.